Bishop Philip Poole, the area bishop of York-Credit Valley, was given a rare honour – to preach at the Remembrance Sunday service at Washington National Cathedral to mark to 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.
The service was organized by the embassies of Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. It was attended by more than 1,500 people, including representatives of 30 embassies in Washington.
The Episcopal cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States. It was the place of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon and the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan.
“I had a few sleepless nights ahead of time, that’s for sure, but it was an enormous privilege to be there representing the Diocese of Toronto and Canada,” says Bishop Poole. “I met people from Belgium, Russia, Germany – all over the world. It was incredible.”
The service in November included a French bagpipe player, a brass quintet from Germany and two buglers from the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines. At 11 a.m., the congregation marked two minutes of silence, followed by the laying of a poppy wreath to honour the fallen from all conflicts. There was a particularly poignant moment when a French child and a German child read out letters in their native languages from soldiers writing home to their families during the Great War.
In his sermon, Bishop Poole spoke about his grandfather, who had fought at Passchendaele and Ypres and was awarded the Military Cross at Amiens. Despite his valour, he rarely talked about his war experiences. Years later, at the family cottage in Muskoka, he would lower the Canadian flag each night and pause for a moment of remembrance. “Did he remember the sound of bombs and machine guns that led to his deafness, the brutal slog, the mud up to his knees, boots that never dried, the sight of the dead and the maimed, the blood and carnage, the smell of war, the weeks turning into months?” asked Bishop Poole.
“Did he remember learning that his kid brother had been wounded, suffered scarlet fever and dysentery, and wonder if he would ever see him alive again? And did he remember the deep sense of guilt, mixed with profound gratitude, that he returned home safely while many others lay dead on foreign soil? I watched my grandfather remember.”
Bishop Poole urged the congregation to move from nostalgia to remembering. “Remembering carries with it the idea of putting back together, to re-member, to put the body back together, to heal.”
He says Christians remember through Holy Communion and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “In this great cathedral, people gather to remember in the Holy Eucharist, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They remember Good Friday and Easter Day. They remember that out of crucifixion comes resurrection, out of despair comes hope, and out death comes new life and new possibilities. They remember that there is a better way.”
Christians need to remember that they are the children of God, he said. “God remembers you. God knows you by name. God counts the hairs on your head. And that is well worth remembering. God loves you. No matter who you are or what you have done or where you have been, God loves you.”
Two days after the service, Bishop Poole was invited by the Canadian Embassy in Washington to lead its Remembrance Day ceremonies. This included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he led prayers over the graves of five Americans who had fought with Canadian troops in the First World War.
The cemetery has 230,000 graves. “It was massive and very sobering,” recalls Bishop Poole. “I was amazed at how young the men were who I was asked to pray for. I was deeply aware that I didn’t know any of them. They would have been husbands and brothers and sons and people who went to school and did sports, and they heeded the call to fight for their country and died on foreign soil.
A video of the Remembrance Sunday service, including Bishop Poole’s sermon, is available on the Washington National Cathedral’s website, www.nationalcathedral.org.