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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


I’ve read a couple of articles during the past week by people who have fallen out of love with the poppy. I don’t mean the flower itself, but the symbol most of us wear at this time of Remembrance. The argument is that its meaning has been debased into unthinking support for a narrow nationalism and the militarism that goes with it. Wearing the poppy is to collude with assumptions that drag our world back into the mind-set of conflict between nations rather than forward towards a global community of reconciliation and friendship.

I admit I have reservations about enforcing the wearing of poppies or regarding them as a kind of fashion accessory. The meaning must surely have something to do with what it symbolises for the wearer. For instance, on tonight’s Strictly Come Dancing, contestants were all sporting them over every conceivable kind of costume from ball gowns to tight leotards and skimpy outfits. It was no doubt well-meant, but it did not always look like a personal choice, more an expression of BBC policy that it is de rigeur not only for its own staff but everyone who takes part in a show.

That said, let me try to defend the poppy. The Great War gave our Remembrance rituals their defining shape. ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow….’  The poppy seemed to resonate with the instincts of ordinary people to memorialise war in a simple way through a blood-hued flower, beautiful as a life laid down, prolific as millions of victims, short-lived as the young men who fell. There are not many invented symbols that are as eloquent as this. Its popularity speaks for itself.

It’s true that like any symbol, the poppy carries many meanings: loss, grief, the pity of war and the tragedy of wasted lives. But it also stands for pride and gratitude for sacrifice offered and service rendered. It is both honourable and necessary for every people to cherish its common memory of war in this way. Yet because the poppy focuses on the debt we owe to the armed forces, and because it is largely they and the ex-service organisations that keep remembrance alive, it is susceptible to a narrow militaristic twist. But this is not the poppy’s fault. The answer to the abuse of a symbol is to use it properly. That is to say, we need to learn how to remember accurately, and then ‘remember forward’ to a world in which we have learned the lessons of war. In such a peaceable world, there will be no place for the divisive nationalisms that inevitably lead to conflict. Ultimately the poppy is a symbol of our humanity, our ability to remember and to care.
Perhaps the poppy is like the Christian cross. That too is the reddened memory of suffering, pain and bloodshed. But it is also a redemptive symbol of sacrifice offered and new life given. Like the poppy, the cross has at times been grossly abused by being turned into a sign of blood-filled destructiveness in, for example, the Crusades that took their very name from it. It has taken the church a long time to wean itself off its addiction to coersive force. If it is doing this, it is through a deeper reflection on what the cross truly means: self-emptying, vulnerable love and the reconciling peace that flows from it.

Might a deeper reflection on the fragile poppy help recover the richness of its symbolism?  I stood in the Cathedral tonight at the annual Festival of Remembrance and watched the poppies drift down from the lantern tower during the silence. I was moved as I always am, by this simple but powerful ceremony. I do not think I was being seduced by it, nor was I colluding with anything. The awfulness of war, the honour of those who served, our mortality, the 'heartbreak at the heart of things', our agonised longing for a better world – all this seemed to be there. I doubt if this marriage of the collective and the personal could be done in better.
Good rituals and symbolism reminds us who and what we are as peoples and as individuals. They open the doors of perception, enlarge our vision and imagination.  This is more and more necessary with every year that passes if we are serious about re-making the world as a safer, wiser, kinder place. In that spirit I shall go on wearing the poppy.

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