In my exploration of religious dissent in The Secret Life of God, I conclude that nonconformity – once such a force for change in British society – has lost much of the muscle that comes from swimming against the tide.
But there’s one area in which these latter-day dissenters have shown me the way. Attending, a few years ago, a Remembrance Sunday service held by the Unitarians – historically the most radical of the independent churches, persecuted for their refusal to uphold the Christian doctrine of the trinity long after other groups gained acceptance – articulated my long-held feelings of unease about the way Britain marks the world wars. It wasn’t so much the commemoration as the way it was done, with all the trappings and triumphalism of militarism that somehow seemed also to celebrate war.
It took a Unitarian minister – then very much swimming against the tide and a little nervous about expressing such unorthodox views in public – to put his finger on what is amiss with the way Britain commemorates conflict. The national tendency to glorify war, he suggested, masks some complicated feelings about death which contrast sharply with the way other cultures think about it; perhaps we need to acknowledge them and learn to remember differently. Since then, I’ve been much less lonely in my remembrance dissent.
Just a few years on, the debate about how we remember our war dead has entered the mainstream. Our involvement in new, Middle Eastern wars has brought the issue alive and the guilt and defensiveness generated by Iraq has helped to foster a vocal counter-culture. This week, Jeremy Corbyn has been in trouble again for voicing reservations about the amount spent on the commemorations of World War One. But, unlike the dissenting minister I heard, he’s no longer a lone voice.