Address: Armed Forces Memorial Dedication

29 October 2008 at :00 am

Amongst the many memorials in Westminster Abbey are those of the great men and women of our island’s national history and of our nation’s international influence. Here are buried or memorialised many of our country’s kings and queens, beginning with a king of England from 1042 to 1066 who was also a saint, Edward the Confessor. Here are poets and musicians, statesmen and lawyers, clerics and academics, soldiers, sailors and airmen. Here is the burial place of the unknown warrior, brought from one of the battlefield graveyards of northern France in 1920 and interred with full military honours in the presence of the King. Nearby at the west end of the nave, installed within the last few years, is a memorial to holders of the Victoria Cross and George Cross. Nearby again is a memorial to Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, so untimely cut down with members of his family and friends in the Northern Ireland conflict.

In the South Cloister of the Abbey are memorials to Royal Air Force coastal command and to those who in the face of violence have given their lives in the service of the Crown to defend freedom, justice and peace. Added to their number today in the South Cloister is a memorial which will stand for all time to members of the Armed Forces and Auxiliary Forces who have lost their lives in conflict since the Second World War. Forming the margin of the memorial is the injunction: ‘Remember them today, tomorrow, for ever.’ We will remember them. We will remember their courage, their fortitude, their heroism.

It is right and fitting to remember, in itself a good. The word ‘remember’ has a powerful undercurrent of meaning. It speaks of our ‘members’, meaning not just the members of a club or society or a family or association, but more anciently of our very limbs and organs. St Paul tells us that, just as our body is made up of many limbs and organs, we are members one of another. He says that we are to care for one another and to depend on one another just as the various parts of the human body depend on one other. If one suffers, all suffer; if one rejoices, all rejoice. If somehow the body has become dismembered, remembering brings the body back together again. So, beyond the metaphor of the body, remembering connects us with our past, with our associates and fellows, with our community. A society that no longer remembers is a society out of touch with itself, living only for the present, with no map or compass, lacking any sense of direction. We will remember.

We will remember them. In this service we cannot name all 16,000 men and women. Their names are recorded in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Here and now let one or two names stand for them all. We will remember Senior Aircraftman Gary Thompson of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment and Senior Aircraftman Graham Livingstone of the Royal Air Force Regiment, who died with him on Sunday 13 April 2008 in Afghanistan. That day, the Support Weapons Flight of 3 Squadron RAF Regiment was undertaking a patrol to protect NATO's Kandahar Airfield from enemy attack in the Daman District of Kandahar province. In the early evening, the vehicle in which Graham Livingstone and Gary Thompson were travelling was caught in an explosion. They were moved to the field hospital at Kandahar Airfield, but died as a result of their wounds. Graham was 23, a husband, son and father. Gary was 51, a husband, brother, son and the father of five daughters, one of whom Kelly read our first lesson. Gary Thompson had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, he said, to play his part in helping its women win the same chances in life his daughters had enjoyed. His commanding officer said of him, “He was the consummate professional soldier and airman, who took immense pride in his military service in addition to his civilian job as manager of Sherwood Ducting Ltd. He was the voice of calm and reason who continuously supported the Squadron's less experienced gunners.”

We will remember them. We will also remember the causes for which they died: the cause of peace, the cause of justice, the cause of freedom. For those of us who have never been members of the Armed Forces or Auxiliary Forces, it is almost impossible to imagine the conditions and circumstances of service. For those of us who have never had to make the life and death decisions of those in command and of the politicians to whom they answer, it is almost impossible for us to imagine how such decisions are taken. But we must know: that those who serve serve on our behalf; that those who decide decide on our behalf. All of us are implicated in those decisions; all of us are the beneficiaries of that service. We cannot evade our responsibility for the decisions taken, for the service offered, for the suffering and death when they result. With this collective responsibility can and should come pride in our nation’s Armed and Auxiliary Forces, and pride in the men and women who serve in them, and pride in what together they achieve on our behalf.

We will remember them. With remembering should come commitment, a strengthened and renewed commitment to strive with all our power to build and develop a community, a nation, a world worthy of their loss, of their death. Later in the service we shall be invited to pledge ourselves anew to the service of God and of our fellow men and women, to supporting those who work for the relief of the needy and for the peace and welfare of the nations. In truth this is a mighty calling and, as the years of conflict since the war to end all wars have shown us, a well-nigh impossible undertaking. We cannot triumph in our strength alone. We must rely on the Love which is strong as death, the Love which many waters cannot quench, which the floods cannot drown, the Love of God, which is triumphant in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Love that surrounds us now, the Love that surrounds all those we remember, the Love that promises them, and us with them, Eternal Life.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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