Twelve months ago, in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, and in order to lend some intellectual cut-and-thrust to the annual season of remembrance, ‘TV historian’ Dan Snow took up the cudgels against the current form of the annual Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph.
Although these categories are not necessarily distinct, it is true to say that, as a breed, ‘TV historians’ have a mixed reputation among their more cloistered, academic colleagues. Among the former, the tendency towards the dumbing-down – and even the simple distortion – of complex material and issues can prove too great to resist. And here is a telling case in point. Something of a poster boy for the National Secular Society, and even nominated as ‘Secularist of the Year 2014’ for ‘promoting a secular vision for the national ceremony of remembrance and challenging the Church of England’s dominant role at the Cenotaph’, Snow’s argument that ‘Remembrance Sunday should not be dominated by religion’, and that secularists need to be represented at the Cenotaph, is beset by dubious reasoning and factual inaccuracies. Indeed, one might even ask whether Snow himself is a convincing champion of his own cause. After all, his qualms about organised religion, the established Church, and religious privilege were not especially prominent when he was married to a daughter of the Duke of Westminster by the Bishop of Liverpool.
Whatever the pros and cons of Snow’s case against the Church of England’s leading role at the Cenotaph, and the need to accommodate the sensitivities of non-believers such as himself (in case, as he rather oddly claims, this generates further conflicts), there is little doubt about the misleading nature of some of his factual claims. To begin with, there is his breezy assertion that ‘about half’ of all Britons claim to have no religion. Do they? According to the 2011 Census, the proportion of the population who reported ‘no religion’ amounted to a quarter of the population of England and Wales. Even if the entire populations of Scotland and Northern Ireland were to be equally fervent ‘nones’, the proportion of Britain’s non-believers would be much, much less than Snow alleges. Furthermore, and despite the accelerating decline of British Christianity in the past fifty years or so, it seems pertinent to note just how many professed atheists there were in the British armed forces of the two World Wars – conflicts that produced the vast and overwhelming majority of those remembered at the Cenotaph each year.
Although official figures are not available for 1914-1918, a named headstone bearing no religious symbol is a telling rarity in the cemeteries of the First World War (and, judging by many of the accompanying inscriptions, a good proportion of these omissions can be ascribed to extreme Protestant misgivings over religious symbols of any kind). During the Second World War, and according to War Office figures, less than 1 per cent of soldiers in the British army claimed to be atheists. Given this situation, it seems entirely legitimate that the Christian identity of these generations should be reflected in the dominant – that is to say, religious – idiom of national remembrance. If we carry Snow’s argument to its logical conclusion, and wish to make our whole cult of remembrance religiously neutral in order to fit with a new (non) religious sensibility, then we also need to have a thoroughgoing purge of our Commonwealth war cemeteries – and do away with the iconic Cross of Sacrifice, the Stone of Remembrance, and even their horticultural style, reflecting as they do Christian understandings of sacrifice and the biblical story of Christ’s resurrection.
Be that as it may, all this is as nothing compared to Snow’s insistence that state ceremonial at the Cenotaph was originally ‘secular’. He gets off to a bad start by getting his dates wrong. King George V was nowhere near the (temporary) Cenotaph at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1919, and still less was there any unveiling on that first anniversary of the Armistice. In fact, when its permanent successor was actually unveiled, on 11 November 1920, this was part of the elaborate ceremonial surrounding the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. And, despite debate about the design of the Cenotaph and the form of ceremony to be followed (a sign of the range and vigour of religious belief across the British Empire, not its absence), the ensuing proceedings were in no way ‘secular’. Immediately prior to the unveiling at the stroke of 11, the assembled crowds sang ‘O God, our Help in Ages Past’, and the Archbishop of Canterbury led them in saying the Lord’s Prayer – which, according to The Times, ‘the King and all his subjects repeated with uncovered heads’. All this can be quickly established by consulting a small amount of contemporary evidence, a fundamental task of any historian, one might suppose. But not, it would seem, if you’re Dan Snow, and your self-appointed mission at the centenary of the First World War is to rid a national act of remembrance – held for generations on the Christian Sabbath, moreover – of what you wrongly perceive and proclaim to be alien religious accretions.
Professor Michael Snape is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Anglican Studies and Director of the Centre for Anglican Studies.