john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    On flags - and setting up our banners
    in the name of God

    Royal British Legion Combined Service for the Laying-up of an Old Standard and Dedication of a New Standard, Good Shepherd, 31/5/2009

    'We cannot afford to fail.' These were the words of General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander in the run-up to D-Day. Failure would give Hitler the opportunity to initiate an eleventh-hour attempt to save Germany and launch his new V-weapons against British cities. Success would mean the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.

    Midnight had not long struck when the British and American airborne armada began its mission on 6 June 1944 in the moonlight. They landed at the edges of the invasion area on the Normandy coast to secure the western and eastern flanks of the beachheads and protect them from German attacks. After two years of meticulous preparations and high level planning by the most senior British and American commanders, Operation Overlord, their audacious strategy to invade and liberate north-west Europe, was under way.

    Some of the Allies' major D-Day objectives, such as reaching the city of Caen, were not met due to high tides, congestion on the beaches and strong German defences. However, D-Day went largely as planned and by the evening the operation was declared a success.

    By midnight total Allied casualties on the Normandy beaches numbered 10,000. Of that number, 2,500 men did not live to see the sunset on D-Day. Today, the remains of soldiers from both sides who fought in the Battle of Normandy lie in 27 cemeteries in the area.

    As you well know, next Saturday, 6th June 2009, is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the extraordinary bravery displayed by the men who took part in the D-Day operations, an opportunity for all supporters of the Royal British Legion to show their gratitude by paying tribute to every soldier, sailor and airman prepared to sacrifice their lives. Every one of them helped to change the outcome of World War II on 6 June 1944 and liberate Europe from the grip of the Nazis. In their honour, five years ago, the Legion planted 1,520 flags, one for each man who fell on that day. Members of the Legion also took flags to Normandy in their honour. [1]

    Flags are important to people of all nations and creeds. A simple piece of fabric, often flown from a pole or mast, a flag's importance is in its symbolism: for signalling or identification. It is most commonly used to symbolise a country.

    The first flags were used to assist military co-ordination on battlefields, and today they are used wherever signals and identification are needed, especially in environments where communication is challenging (such as the maritime environment where semaphore is used).

    National flags are potent patriotic symbols, often with strong military associations due to their original and ongoing military uses. [2]
    And flags are used by groups of people who have something to celebrate - think of all the blue-and-white banners flying around our city's streets this past week marking Everton's cup final appearance - still flying with pride today despite the result.

    They are used by groups of people who have something to protest - working people in the Labour movement have produced over the years some extraordinarily beautiful banners, sometimes bearing creatively provocative statements, to protest their cause - and to affirm their identity.

    Flags are used by groups of people who have their community to affirm - the flag is a sign that they belong to each other, as they stand beneath the flag in a common cause. Maybe we think about the flags of the Royal British Legion in this way, as members of the Legion stand behind the flag you are affirming your identity as people who have stood together over the years as companions and friends - first in conflict, then in loss, in remembrance and in commemoration.
    Since the end of the First World War Remembrance Day and the Two Minute Silence have been observed, but their relevance remains undiminished. When we bow our heads in reflection, we remember those who fought for our freedom during the two World Wars. But we also mourn and honour those who have lost their lives in more recent conflicts. Today, with troops on duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the world, Remembrance, and this silent tribute, are as important as ever.
    Today we gather to Lay-Up an old Standard and to Dedicate a new Standard. By doing so we are affirming the ongoing significance of the Royal British Legion and all that it stands for. We are saying that we shall continue to remember those who have fought injustice, fought fascism, and died for their commitment to their people. We are saying that we are committed to continuing to stand among those who today and tomorrow will fight injustice, fight fascism, as these things continue in the world and the need to oppose them is as potent as ever.

    We gather in a church. Which is a good thing to do, because churches hold the memories of the community they are in. When you lay up a flag in a parish church you can do so with confidence that it will be seen, noted, reflected on, it may even prompt the prayers of people for the Legion and its concerns as it remains here in the sanctuary over the years.

    Gathering in a church for an occasion like this is also a good thing to do, because it connects us with God. And it is good to be reminded that God affirms those who are prepared to stand up for each other, to stand up for what is good and just and true, to stand against injustice, fascism, and other evils. In the Old Testament God is portrayed as one who fought openly - and very bloodily - for his people. In the New Testament Jesus the Son of God emphasises to his followers a peaceful approach to their enemies, but never shies away from conflict in the cause of what is right.

    Our service tonight is a celebration of things past and a clarion call to a future where love and comradeship, service and devotion to just causes will continue. My prayer for you, members and associates of the Royal British Legion, and - I hope - our prayer for all people of goodwill, might be summed up in the words of the psalmist David, in Psalm 20:
    The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
    The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
    May he send you help from the sanctuary,
    and give you support from Zion.
    May he remember all your offerings,
    and regard with favour your ... sacrifices.
    May he grant you your heart's desire,
    and fulfil all your plans.
    May we shout for joy over your victory,
    and in the name of our God set up our banners.
    May the Lord fulfil all your petitions.

    Substantial sections of this talk are direct or lightly edited extracts from the following sources:
    [1] The Royal British Legion - D-Day: the biggest wartime operation
    [2] Wikipedia
    [3] The Royal British Legion - The Nation Remembers