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Does praying make any difference? I’ve often been asked that question. And if I couldn’t give an answer which made at least some sense, then I would have wasted years of my life studying theology, the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. But you know there are times when I find myself asking the question, Does praying make any difference? And today, Remembrance Sunday, is one of those times.

How many times have I prayed for peace? Do you know I’ve lost count? How about you? I bet you’ve lost count as well. And yet there is still war. The novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote, sometime in the 1920’s I believe it was: We are in for 50 years of undeclared wars. Although if he’d lived longer instead of dying so tragically, he might have revised his prediction upwards.

War these days is a complicated business. I remember the English master at my old school telling us that, at one time, before a battle took place the commanders of the two armies would approach each other on horse-back, dismount, remove their hats and bow to each other as gentlemen should. I wonder when they stopped doing that. Now we have technological warfare. Bombs can be delivered, with deadly accuracy, by drones and the person aiming and pulling the trigger doesn’t need to be in the vicinity, or even in the same country. And with ever more sophisticated technology, I wonder how long it will be before drones start deciding for themselves when they’re going to drop bombs, and even who they’re going to drop them on. 

We live in an age when technology is replacing people, at least in some areas of life. And I have to say I have very mixed feelings about the recent cuts in this country’s forces. As a former trade unionist I would never condone putting anyone out of work, whatever their job might be. And in the future, when the world is a more peaceful place – as, please God, it will be – there will be an increasing humanitarian and peace-keeping role for what we now call the armed forces. So let’s hope they’re still around to take on that role.

It’s also worthwhile considering the long-term outcomes of war and some of its victims, particularly those who don’t appear on the television news. Just a couple of years ago it was estimated that some 9,000 ex-service personnel were homeless following their discharge from the army. And it’s reckoned that, across the UK, 1 in 10 rough sleepers are ex-army. I’ll say that again in case you thought you were hearing things: 1 in 10 rough sleepers across the UK are ex-army. It’s not just those who get shot who are the victims of war.

But if war is a complex matter, so are attitudes towards it. A few years ago I was at a social event and I was introduced to a high-ranking army officer and we got into lengthy conversation. And during the course of our conversation I said to him, I’m totally opposed to war. And he looked at me and said, Yes, so am I.

And of course different convictions will always be found among Christians and within congregations. Some of us will feel that Remembrance Sunday and everything that goes with it glorifies war. Others will agree with the MP quoted in one of last Sunday’s papers who said: Commemorating the sacrifice is not glorification.

At this point I’d like to include a personal recollection. I knew a young married couple and the husband was quite severely disabled as a result of the time he’d spent in the army. And his wife told me that they hadn’t received much help from the government but that they’d been generously helped by the Royal British Legion. That made me think again. So if you do decide to support the work of the British Legion, you may be doing a lot more than paying for next year’s poppies. Having said that I’d like to ask the same question I asked in last week’s sermon in a different context: Why in such a wealthy country as this one does such important work have to be done by charities?

So on an occasion like Remembrance Sunday, which is likely to evoke strong and often conflicting feelings, what can we do together? And what can we do that will preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

In the first place we can hope. We can hope that the governments of the world will realise the futility of war. As someone once said, soldiers don’t start wars, politicians start wars. So we can hope that those in positions of power and responsibility will come to understand that war only generates further conflict, as indeed history shows. If war produced peace, then we’d have peace because there’s certainly been enough war. And we can hope that the issues which underlie war will be addressed – the injustice, the oppression, the poverty, the inequality – and that these issues will be resolved peacefully and in a spirit of co-operation. We might also hope that the biggest and most powerful nations will stop telling the rest of the world how to live and what to do. Or is that too much to hope for?

And we can pray. Yes, pray. Because I believe it does make a difference. At some level of being I believe it makes a difference. Don’t ask me what I mean by that because I couldn’t tell you in precise terms. It’s the only way I can think of to express what I mean. We can pray for peace and we can continue to pray for peace, however many times we’ve prayed for it before and however many times we’ve felt close to despair. When we pray we put our trust in God, however often our trust in man may have been shattered.

Hope and prayer. And the unity of the People of God as we long for peace. That surely is what Remembrance Sunday is all about.