Address given at the Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication on Battle of Britain Sunday 2012

16 September 2012 at 11:00 am

The Venerable Raymond Pentland QHC RAF, Chaplain-in-Chief

A lady leaving the cathedral on Christmas morning greeted the Bishop with the words, ‘That is the same sermon you preached last Christmas.’’  ‘It is indeed the same sermon Madam. I have not changed my mind about the message of Christmas since last year and it is unlikely I shall change it before next year; therefore I shall preach the same sermon again!’

Preaching my 27th Battle of Britain sermon, and my 5th and probably last as a commissioned chaplain, in this great Abbey, I have some sympathy with the Bishop!  But there is truth in the Hymn Writer’s words ‘Tell me the old old story…….’ for this is a story that must never be forgotten.

It was an extraordinary summer. The nation waited, wondering, full of anticipation, filled with the fear of failure, praying for success our hope for victory placed in the hands of a few and they did not let us down. 

The extraordinary summer of 1940 saw the triumph of  
good over evil;
  courage over fear;
     light over darkness;
          freedom rather than tyranny;                                                                                                                                                                           hope over despair

It was an extraordinary summer. The nation waited, wondering, full of anticipation, filled with the fear of failure, praying for success our hope for victory placed in the hands of a few, and the nation united to celebrate the Olympics and Paralympics, and they did not let us down.

As the Olympic torch, lit by the sun on mount Olympia passed from hand to hand, community to community I heard the words of St Thomas Moore echo down through the centuries

                  Tradition is not holding onto the ashes
       But the passing on of the flame.

Today we commemorate the living flame that is our tradition and heritage as a nation and as the RAF.

That flame lit in the dark days of WW1, as the fledging Royal Flying Corps (whose centenary we have also celebrated) grew its wings, was passed to the generation who would fly the Hurricane and Spitfire, and has been passed through the generations to the RAF of today.

This morning I wish to suggest that in their story we see
The Flame of Hope in which we witness courage
     The Flame of Service in which we see commitment

The Flame of Hope

It has been an extraordinary summer and if our Olympians and paralymipians of whom we are so proud held the hope of this nation,
                       these young men,
                                   the few, held the fate of our nation,

indeed of the free word, or as one of the few, Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, suggests

Held the whole future of mankind
 in his two sweating palms
And did not let it go.

Churchill was very clear where our nation’s hope lay when on 14th July 1940, he stated,

Now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do. Bearing ourselves humbly before God … we are ready to defend our native land … We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone. Here in this city of refuge (which is Britain), which … is of deep consequence to Christian civilisation, here, girt about by the seas …
 and shielded from above
by the prowess and devotion of our airmen,
we are undismayed at the impending assault.

Churchill’s hope was placed in those we call the few. That hope was rewarded with our nation’s deliverance.

However, hope must be rooted in more than tradition indeed it is better placed in the person of the God whose character and activity we have read about in our scriptures.

Our first reading reminds us that there is another way to look at the world - it is not just about what we can see physically, or about how we feel. It reminds us that behind the ebb and flow of human life, of history, there is a bigger picture, a deeper reality, and a greater purpose.

There are moments in our lives when we occasionally glimpse that there is something more, more than what we can see, feel, hear, touch or smell.

We may choose to dismiss such moments, but just occasionally there is a realisation, that there is more, a bigger picture of which we are but a small part. This was true for many in 1940. Today we acknowledge the 2,936 aircrew, and so many more who made it all possible, mechanics, armourers, WAAF’s, - plotters, drivers, stewards, and anti aircraft gunners.

It was the few who to the skies but it was a moment when our nation was united.

It is often forgotten that King George VI designated 8 September 1940 as a National Day of Prayer. On that day great numbers of people filled our churches, praying for deliverance.

When our enemies surround us, when our problems are overwhelming, when it seems hopeless – tradition, history and experience suggest that there is still hope, and then we remember that

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
 his mercies never come to an end;

This morning we brought 32 Sqn standard to the altar. In 1940, a few days before the Battle reached its climax on the 15 September, our nation came before the altar and prayed for deliverance.

Lord Dowding later commented

Britain was not too proud to recognise
national days of prayer
and should  therefore not be too proud
 to acknowledge the results of those prayers.

Of course all too often we forget when our prayers have been answered. The greatest devastation for any culture is not that it will be forgotten, but that it will become forgetful. We must never forget what God has done so that with the Psalmist we can declare

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
 whom then shall I fear.

Today we offer not only thanksgiving for deliverance, and for the courage of the few; we will also rededicate ourselves to building a world in which there is justice,  peace and freedom for all.

The Flame of Service

It has been an extraordinary summer. We celebrated Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee, witnessing the sense of duty and service, so exemplified in the Queen, and received from her parents, as seen in Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s affection the few whom she referred to as ‘her boys’ – The Few- and this flame of service is now carried on by HRH the Price of Wales as Patron of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. 

It was hoped that the Olympics and Paralympics would inspire a generation.

Therefore if our Olympic and paralymipians of whom we are justly so proud have inspired a generation and I believe they have,
             these young men,
                       the few, inspired the free world!

Of course we may be inspired intellectually and emotionally but remain unchanged. Our second reading suggests that this would be foolish,

Who is wise and understanding among you?
 Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done
in the humility that comes from wisdom.

In other words true wisdom is not what we say but how we live.
This is the very heart of service, and it is something was evident among the participants and the games makers which influenced the behaviour of others as courtesy and politeness once more became part of daily life. We can but hope that this legacy, where we choose to live for others rather than ourselves, for better communities, and find a bigger vision will continue.

Of course such qualities of service are expected from our service personnel. Such qualities are passed on to us from our heroic predecessors. This is the service given by the few, and the many, the service still seen in our armed forces today.
St James writes of peace and of gentleness, of mercy and caring for others, essentially following the example of Jesus, one to which we all should aspire.

The Flame of Tradition

The few were passed the flame of hope, courage, adventure, commitment, and service from those magnificent men in the first flying machines.

They fought for a better world, a world free from tyranny and fear, where justice and peace reign. We give thanks to God for all that they were and all that they did.

The legacy of that extraordinary summer of 1940 is evident as successors of the few, todays RAF, on the ground and in the air protect our nation each and every day and exceptionally so in this extraordinary summer of 2012.

It was an extraordinary summer. The nation waited, wondering, full of anticipation, filled with the fear of failure, praying for success, our hope for victory placed in the hands of a few who did not let go, and so in the words of one of their of their own

Remember them
not as they are portrayed,
but as they were.
To them we owe the most of what
we have and love today.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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