For the first time ever, I put on a uniform and took part in a Remembrance Day parade today. This was not on account of a sudden urge to commemorate the 1914 centenary. The motive was more base: word is that next year I’ll be the one laying the wreath on behalf of the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, so I thought I’d better find out how it’s done.
Being in the parade is a very different experience from that of a spectator. Even the civil organisations try and look disciplined as they march through the town and stand in the square. Embarrassingly we non-combatants were applauded by the spectators in the same way they applauded the ex-servicemen; but it would be equally awkward for the spectators to switch the applause on and off.
Not that I’m a devotee of these occasions, preferring the BBC edited highlights of the Whitehall ceremony. Indeed the last time I was physically present at one was in the mid-1980s at City Hall in Belfast. Then my function was to be handed a wreath by a government official and to hand it in turn to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that he could lay it. The invariable Belfast cold was then dissipated by a retreat to the Lord Mayor’s parlour for a few drams.
That’s a digression. The only drams going at Exmouth were the ones you bought yourself in the pub afterwards, and since I was driving back home, that was a no-no.
Back to the parade, and the ceremony at the war memorial. Exmouth is only a couple of miles from the Royal Marine training centre at Lympstone Camp, so the town has a close relationship with the Marines. This was evident in the number of former Marines in the parade, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the sight of these men standing to attention and imagining what bravery they must have shown in battle. Because Remembrance ought to be about those who survived as well as those who perished.
And that’s where the traditional Royal British Legion ceremony format starts to look dated. If the survivors, not to mention the rest of the parade and the spectators, are at all representative of the population then less than 60% are nominally Christian – and I emphasise nominally – and over 65% never attend a church service . Yet what happens half way through the proceedings? Up pops a Church of England clergyman to force us to sing dreary hymns and pray to a god many of us don’t believe in.
This is of course the default format. But why should the agnostics, atheists and those of non-christian faiths suddenly be shut out of Remembrance? It’s our country as well, and those who fought for it are entitled to be respected and remembered at communal assemblies by us, as well as by the Anglican minority.
The National Secular Society has called on the government to end Anglican dominance of Remembrance ceremonies. Good luck to them, but until the Church of England is disestablished, I’m not holding my breath.