The Venerable (Air Vice-Marshall) John R Ellis QHC RAF, Chaplain in Chief and Archdeacon for the Royal Air Force
Sunday, 20th September 2020 at 11.00 AM
Just a couple of weeks ago, sitting in my lounge at home, much to the surprise of my wife, I leapt out of my chair and ran outside, eyes fixed on the clear blue skies. What had caused such a moment? Would it be a Spitfire, or would it be a Hurricane? Moments later that unique elliptical wing came into sight – a Spitfire. The significance of such an evocative sight crosses generation, cultures and the debating of historians. A tangible reminder, perhaps even an icon of a nation’s hopes.
There are not that many Spitfires and Hurricanes left flying. And even those that don’t fly are still looked at through an iconic lens. Indeed, only recently, a search in a field in rural Essex produced the wreckage of Hurricane P3966.
Shot down on the 26th August 1940, its pilot, John ‘Paddy’ Hemmingway bailed out and survived. Still with us, he along with many others who witnessed this historic event are reminders to us that this not just past history, it is history of living memory.
One man, one aircraft. Not to deny either his significance or courage we often are witness to debates about the significance of events and people, some arguing that processes and trends are more important. However, I think that some events, some people are not just significant, they are pivotal. The Battle of Britain was one of those pivotal events and likewise those who served in it, everyone of them.
Today marks the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. It is a time for us to reflect and remember, to recall memories, to remember the sacrifices made and not least the pivotal nature of the event.
The 15th of September 1940 saw the peak of the battle relentlessly the enemy planes appeared in our skies and still, after weeks of fighting, they were met once again, and probably quite unexpectantly by the continued pressure and resistance of the Royal Air Force. This was a day surrounded by over 100 days of intense air combat. A time when our freedom was literally hanging in the balance. This was a time when those who served in the air, on the ground, in factories, and of course we should never forget our friends from across the world who came to join the fight. All combining their efforts to secure a path to freedom, but the cost was enormous.
Like so many things in our lives over the past months, today's thanksgiving and rededication is different. A difference that is determined by our fight against an invisible enemy, COVID-19. And once again we have a front line, one that has seen a great cost borne by the National Health Service and its support staff as well as countless key workers. Once again there have been sacrifices made, often quiet, often humble and unnoticed by many. Although starkly different events, each of them has two things that are so important to our humanity, service and value. In their service, we see that selfless giving to a greater cause. Certainly, any notion that the Battle in the skies above us in 1940 was some sort of romantic duel is soon quashed when we listen to the first-hand accounts.
Therefore, it is so important to listen, listen to the vivid descriptions of not just the sights and sounds, but to the emotions described too. In reality, for the majority, this was an experience of exhaustion, fear, pain and struggle. An experience that cast a heavy toll. This was not a time to seek for peace at any cost. What sort of peace would that have been bearing in mind events both here at home and across the world at that time? This was about freedom and justice and they come at a cost.
This is a cost that is alluded to in our reading from St Pauls Letter to the Philippians:
…..he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross
We hear how Christ himself gave up all privileges and became a servant, he became one of us and submitted to death in our place – the ultimate sacrifice.
Is it any wonder that the medal for gallantry awarded so often in the Battle was a cross?
It should be no surprise to us that Paul, reflecting on the life of the Risen Christ, uses these words to inspire us to lives of service and value in His footsteps:
…..Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves
We are guided towards the need to look not at our own interests but the interests of others.
Eighty years on, the Battle of Britain generation continues to inspire us by their dedication and sacrifice. And in our day, we can recognise those who model servanthood in the face of challenge. Why did it somehow seem appropriate to have a Spitfire flying over Britain with the words ‘thank U NHS’ emblazoned underneath? What is the connection between a vintage warplane and a modern medical service? Because both are icons of the best of our nation – service, sacrifice, and dedication.
Today our gratitude, our thanksgiving focusses on those who fought 80 years ago during the Battle of Britain. Those who still inspire the Royal Air Force of today, a force which continues to protect our nation with sacrificial service.
We are not here, however, to passively honour their efforts but to commit ourselves to serve with determination and courage for all that is right and true.
Let each of us remember and give thanks for our liberty, so bravely fought for, and pray for our peace to be strengthened. As we hold up into the light of God those we knew, have loved and those we have lost – we recall their courage and their sacrifice.
May we never forget.