On the 11th November 1918, representatives of the warring parties met in a railway carriage at Compiègne, 80 miles from Paris, to agree an Armistice that brought to an end the First World War. Since then many European countries, including France, have kept the 11th November as a Day of Remembrance marked with a public holiday. Britain and many Commonwealth countries transferred their remembrance events to the nearest Sunday. This year, 100 years after the ending of the Great War, the 11th November fell on a Sunday. So Remembrance Sunday in Paris this year was a particularly significant occasion with people gathering from all over the world, and as far as Australia and New Zealand.
On the morning of the 11th November 2018, representatives from 70 countries gathered at the Arc de Triomphe, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame. I happened to be in Paris for the weekend – conducting the licensing of Fr. Mark Osborne at St. George’s on the 10th – and I was staying just a few minutes away from the triumphal arch.
It was a very wet and grey Sunday. Security was intense, with some 10,000 police deployed on the streets of Paris. Most of the leaders arrived in four coaches after a reception at the Presidential Palace. President Trump arrived separately as did President Putin. The line-up on the central tribune was impressive: President Macron with Chancellor Merkel on one side of him and the French First Lady on the other, flanked by President Putin and President Trump: the heads of Europe, Russia and the USA united in remembrance – with many other world leaders around them. The morning was beautifully orchestrated in grand French style, with an inspection of the troops, a fly past, musical items and contributions from international young people.
In the afternoon, there was a British and Commonwealth Remembrance Service at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Many of our own diocesan clergy were present. The intercessions were led by the Revd. Dale Hanson and I was honoured to be asked to preach.
The nave of Notre Dame was packed. Ambassadors from many Commonwealth countries attended, along with large numbers of military personnel. The Cathedral was beautifully decorated with national flags. The service was deeply moving and impressive. Several military personnel read testimonies of the experience of war. Children read poems. And the last post was sounded by the actual bugle used when war came to an end on 11th November 1918.
In my sermon I spoke of the importance of ‘remembrance’ to recollect the long and tragic history of human conflict and to honour the experiences of veterans and victims. But I suggested that remembrance can also be a source of inspiration and hope. At the heart of the Christian faith is the remembrance of a death which is transformed into a victory over sin and which opens the possibility of reconciliation between people and between people and God. The impact of Jesus’s death and resurrection is worked out in ‘the kingdom of God’, a project of justice and peace to which we are invited to contribute. In our time, there is an urgent need to remember and learn from the past by sustaining and building international relationships and institutions that make for peace.
For me, the most moving part of the service came at the end. A procession assembled in readiness to follow a lone bagpiper out of the Cathedral. For a few minutes, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris, myself and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Berlin stood together in front of the altar. It felt like an important gesture of Christian European solidarity at a time when Europe is once again under serious strain.