Britain Remembers Its 'Finest Hour'

Ugandan-born Archbishop of York displays touching patriotism.

Seventieth anniversary celebrations of various World War II anniversaries continue to slip by in what is maybe the last time that large numbers of veterans from that conflict will be able to participate.  Most of our current global struggles pale in scale and in importance next to the last world war, which killed over 50 million, and on whose outcome rested the fate of decent civilization.

Often enthralled by pacifism, many of today’s Western clergy prefer not to remember that war too closely. Otherwise they would have to explain how peaceful resistance to Hitler and Tojo would have looked, or justify non-violently standing by as millions of innocents were incinerated.  They are also loath to honor military valor or patriotic zeal, which they often regard as idolatrous.

A notable exception to this reluctance is the Church of England’s Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.  Himself native to Uganda, he is usually un-intimidated by the demands of political correctness and often bold in affirming Western and British culture.  He often honours Britain’s military veterans, especially from World War II, which Churchill rightly recalled as his nation’s “finest hour” when standing alone against Nazi Germany.  Sentamu’s father served in the King’s African Rifles, as did his uncle, who died fighting the Japanese in Burma.

Last Sunday, Archbishop Sentamu observed a military procession and presided over worship at Allied Forces Memorial Day, marking the 70th anniversary of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command in Elvington, which had housed both RAF bombers and the Free French Air Force.  A military band performed “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  He was joined by a dozen elderly veterans of the original 77 Squadron, who were the first RAF group stationed at the base.  During 18 months the squadron lost 600 men.

“The service took place in the hangar, where guests were surrounded by aircraft, which was a fitting tribute to the men who fought and died in the fight against tyranny,” explained a spokesman for the Yorkshire Air Museum, which organizes the annual commemoration, and one of whose vice presidents is Sentamu.  Other vice presidents include the chiefs of the RAF and the French Air Force.

Before the event, Archbishop Sentamu explained:  “It’s wonderful to be back at Elvington to remember the important contribution and sacrifice made by Allied Air Forces during the Second World War. We are reminded of the heroic personal struggles of those who worked together to combat evil during this time in our history. We are in their debt. It is right that our service on Sunday will remember the brave and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  In Churchill’s words: ’Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’”

Archbishop Sentamu presided over stirring English hymns like “I Vow to Thee My Country” during the worship. “We are reminded of the heroic personal struggles of those who worked together to combat evil during this time in our history,” he preached. “We are in their debt. It is right that the service today remembers the brave and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”  Afterwards there were also flyovers by the RAF’s vintage Lancaster Bomber, Spitfire and Vulcan, which once flew missions over Nazi occupied Europe, targeting the German war machine.

At last year’s commemoration, Archbishop Sentamu joined in paying tribute to 14 British military personnel who perished in a Nimrod strike aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006 while on reconnaissance against the Taliban.  After the service Sentamu sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a Nimrod for a test run of its engines.

Archbishop Sentamu seems to sense a special spiritual responsibility towards the RAF and Britain’s armed forces.  Five years ago he visited an RAF training session and personally flew in a Grob Tutor aircraft.   "I am on record as saying that the Royal Air Force is the best in the world,” he later said. “They have a difficult job to carry out which they manage to do with skill, flair and dedication. The men and women of the RAF, like all in the armed forces, deserve our support for their unswerving commitment in the face of danger and their willingness to do so on behalf of each of us."

The next year Archbishop Sentamu personally jumped from a military aircraft at 12,500 feet as a fundraiser for families of the British killed and wounded in Afghanistan.  "I give thanks today for the amazing sacrifice our armed forces and their families have made,” he remarked later.  He waved the victory sign as he fell through the sky with “Red Devil” paratroopers.  And he has said if he had joined the armed forces he would have been first a pilot and secondly a parachutist.  The military’s risks and service “in defense of the crown” contrast with the current times’ preoccupation with “me-me-me” and merit the nation’s gratitude, he has said.

Sentamu had opposed the Iraq War but his opposition was “no longer relevant” after the war began, he has explained of his solidarity with the British military and its exertions in “defense of our liberties.”  The Archbishop of York, unlike many native born prelates in the Church of England, is unashamed of patriotism and military service, which he rightly understands as service to God and humanity when properly performed.

Would that other Western, senior church officials shared Sentamu’s good instincts and robust defense of lawful societies. The remaining 3 years of commemorating World War II’s struggle between liberty and slavery would be an ideal time for them to rediscover what the Archbishop of York evidently never forgot.

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