I always find celebrating the Feasts and Commemorations of November to be both poignant and troubling. The first days bring both the euphoria of All Saints Day, and the commemoration of the Faithful Departed at All Souls tide. Remembrancetide adds so much significance to that mix, even before we approach the Feast of Christ the King, bringing the Church’s Year to its completion. Then we face Advent Sunday, with sombre warnings of time moving inexorably on. November is all about connections, our connection in faith to those who have gone before, and to those whose examples, and prayers, encourage us on.
The Hymn, O Valiant Hearts, is little sung now. Written by Sir John Arkwright, and immensely popular immediately after the Great War, it is rarely even found in Hymn Books nowadays, and has been the subject of much Clerical controversy, principally around verse 5, and the reference to those killed in warfare as having their own sacrifice like that of Christ’s on the Cross, the ‘lesser calvaries’.
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.
Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human way,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.
Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.
O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and Whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.
Indeed I was intrigued, when reading an article recently on the controversy this Hymn has caused over the years, to discover that one of the first to raise a concern was a predecessor as Rector of Elland, Canon Bernard Pawley, future Archdeacon of Canterbury. In a Letter to the Church Times of March 1946 from Elland Rectory, at a time when the horrors of Hiroshima and Belsen were undoubtedly still raw, he writes ‘Is the Hymn, ‘O Valiant Hearts’, in comparing the sacrifice of the fallen with the sacrifice of Calvary, an edifying Christian document?’
Both Fr Pawley, as a former Army Chaplain and Prisoner of War, and John Arkwright were trying to make sense of slaughter and human evil on a previously unknown scale. Both looked for the Crucified Christ in the midst of destruction and heartache, while reaching quite different conclusions. In our own day, when evil and the human capacity to destroy have found ever new and heartbreaking means to operate, then perhaps our starting point is that we must continue to remember and pray, and to offer ourselves as a part of God’s desire to build a better world.