I am always uneasy at the relationship between church and state, especially when they become intertwined.
Jesus said we should give the state the respect it deserved. Paul, a little later, urged Christians to pray for those in authority, which seems like a really good idea these days. No matter which country you are in, your leaders could use some divine help.
In Canada, our head of state is also head of the Anglican Church. We don’t have a state church as many countries do, but that relationship still feels a little strange. Canadians tend to think we have separation of church and state such as the United States does (constitutionally mandated), but the truth is the separation is more a matter of convention than law.
The relationship between church and state was in my thoughts again in February when I was wandering in central London and came across The Guards’ Chapel, which as it turns out is the Royal Military Chapel. Having an affinity for churches, I went in.
You don’t normally associate the military with a place of worship, or at least I don’t. Given that Christianity is a religion of peace, of turning the other cheek, of putting away the sword, it seems a strange association. That church/state dichotomy. Nevertheless, I found it to be a moving experience. That was probably due to the worn and tattered flags, brought back I assume from various British military campaigns across the globe.
The chapel was a more modern design than I would have expected, but the original building was destroyed in 1944. That surprised me when I read it, for by 1944 I thought the RAF had driven the Luftwaffe from the skies over London. And indeed they had, the chapel was destroyed by a flying bomb, a V-1 rocket I assume – I don’t think the V-2s were introduced until 1945. (I wrote this in London, since coming home I have looked it up and it was a V-1.)
I sat for a while and pondered the question of fighting “for King and country.” As a Canadian I am predisposed to British values, especially Christian ones. That military units have Christian chapels makes sense I suppose, given that the makeup of the military would be predominantly Christian (though I gather it wasn’t always and probably isn’t any more).
I wrestle with the idea that here is such a thing as a “just war,” a doctrine first proposed by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century. The Second World War may have had its roots in an unjust peace imposed by the victors in the First World War, but there was no excuse for the Holocaust, unless you accept evil as an excuse. But was it a “just” war? I don’t know.
I’m left in a strange position. I don’t like war; I don’t believe it solves anything. But I would not call myself a pacifist. When I was very young I considered a military career.
Sometimes confronting evil calls for standing up to it. Which is theologically inaccurate – we are told to turn the other cheek. Nowhere are we told to make distinctions. The concept of “just war” is a later construct not found in the New Testament, though you can find its roots in the Old Testament. Whether that is justification I leave to your consideration.
So while I struggle a little with the concept, I appreciate the sentiment. And maybe a church for military members is really no different from one frequented by a particular ethnic or linguistic group. Not ideal perhaps, but there is some comfort in worshipping with those with whom you have much in common.
I will admit to being curious as to who the regular worshippers are. Members of the military? Their families? The public? Maybe on a future visit to London I will be able to attend a worship service. On the Tuesday afternoon in February that I was there, the only activity was a chamber orchestra rehearsal.
The Guards’ Chapel is an oasis of peace. It does not glorify the military, nor does it praise war. Until we beat our swords into ploughshares, it will continue to serve a purpose.