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

    The Meek and The Few

    Battle of Britain Commemoration Service, Bridestowe

    Isaiah 40.28-31, Matthew 5.1-12

    "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." So said Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech in the House of Commons on the 20th of August 1940, in tribute to the British airmen who were at that moment enacting one of the key battles of the Second World War, the Battle of Britain.

    Those 3000 British pilots and other aircrew thwarted the Luftwaffe's intention to destroy RAF Fighter Command, in a conflict which lasted between July 10 and October 31 that year. Over 500 died from all causes during the Battle. But by their victory Hitler's plan to invade Britain was frustrated. 'Their contribution at a turning point in British history was eventually recognised by the "immediate" award of the 1939-45 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp.' [1]

    Ever since Churchill's speech in their honour, those who fought in the Battle have been referred to as "The Few". The Few in number whose exploits were highly valued by the many for whose sake they flew and fought. The Few in number whose airborne battles were a relatively brief aspect of a worldwide conflict which lasted many years, but whose significance was great.

    Chairman of the Trustees of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust Richard Hunting recently said, "The Battle of Britain was arguably the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the last century and it is vital that young people, in particular, remember their bravery and, in many cases, sacrifice." [2] The fame of Churchill's speech helps ensure that the Few will always be remembered.

    Churchill was, of course, a very clever speechmaker, and to add weight to the great achievement of the RAF personnel in the Battle of Britain he bent the truth a little. The achievement and sacrifice of The Few was massive and worthy of all praise - and that's why we are here today - but history shows us that over and over again small numbers of people have changed the direction of history for the benefit of the many.

    Whether that's the actions of paratroopers giving themselves to drop behind enemy lines to help ensure the success of many wartime operations, whether that's the members of Fighter Command who protected the troops at the Dunkirk evacuation, RAF personnel have shown this over and again: small numbers have changed the direction of history for the benefit of the many.

    This is true in civilian life too: if we think, I'm sure that we can each think of situations in history, and in our own lives, where small, previously unnoticed people or groups of people have done something which has made a great difference.

    Sometimes these people are motivated by faith. Mother Teresa, who knowing well that the people dying on the streets of Calcutta would not be saved by her nursing care but would be blessed and loved to the end of their lives; those Christians we know who open their homes as foster parents and transform the lives of many children, who devote their days to changing the course of those young people's histories.

    And such behaviour is affirmed by scripture, where over and over again Jesus celebrates the positive effect of The Few on the many. The beatitudes are like a hymn to this purpose: 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled...' Blessed are the Few, for they will transform the world for the many as key members of the transforming kingdom which Jesus is bringing in.

    The Battle of Britain contributed to a victory in WW2 which paved the way for an unprecedented period of prosperity for the British people. The sons and daughters of the personnel of RAF Fighter Command and their colleagues, according to a recent article in the Daily Mail, benefited more than any other generation:
    1948 babies are the luckiest: Their generation saw free schooling, free healthcare ... and an end to National Service.

    They were born as Britain was getting back on its feet after the war, and would go on to enjoy a lifetime of help from the state. So it is little wonder those born in 1948 have been declared the luckiest generation.

    The year of their birth saw the founding of the National Health Service, while within 12 months the first comprehensive school had opened its gates. The 11-plus test made higher education more accessible for some and the introduction of means-tested student grants in 1962 ensured the taxpayer funded their university years.

    The 1948ers can also look forward to a comfortable retirement. While the current crisis in pensions provision is set to force people to work longer for less reward, the majority of baby-boomers will enjoy a retirement funded by a final salary scheme.

    The family allowance introduced in 1945 bought the 1948ers clothes and shoes. Being born in 1948 also meant being able to live a life free from the fears of generations before them.

    The abolition of National Service in 1960 meant their teenage years were free from worries of joining the military. And they entered adulthood in time to enjoy the swinging 60s... with the Pill, teenage rebellion and flower power.

    Economists also point out how fortunate 1948ers have been when it comes to housing. Their first steps on the property ladder coincided with the 1970s housing boom as home ownership rocketed. [3]
    This is what The Few achieved for the many who followed them in the next generation. Their acts of heroism contributed to the war effort which set up a good life for their children - who indeed had 'Never had it so good', to quote that successor of Churchill's, Harold Macmillan.

    How different this is from the current generation of children, growing up facing decades of loan repayments for their university education, the likelihood of miniscule pensions, low wages and a massive housing shortage. I recently heard the community theologian Ann Morisy speak on this issue [4]. She said that
    'The issue [is that] those in the later stage of life are less likely to be hard hit by changes in relation to pension provision, unemployment and the steep challenge of getting a foot on the property ladder. Societies throughout history have been used to investing in their children, today the worry is the ever rising cost of eldercare. There are profound, but unacknowledged repercussions of the age profile in post-industrial nations that call for re-inventing our life styles and the assumed pursuit of wealth to the bitter end'.
    The actions of the few, we celebrate and give thanks for today. The Few of the RAF who played such a key part in the Allied success of WW2, who helped create a good world for their children. The Few we know or have known in civilian life whose life of giving, sacrifice, caring have helped and blessed many others.

    We Christians are part of The Few today; our congregations are small but our God has a great big heart bursting with unlimited, unconditional love for all, and especially for the little ones, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.

    'Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.', said Isaiah (40:30-31): cementing in scripture God's passion for the well-being of the young.

    'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,' said Jesus (Matthew 9.38): calling us to become active in the work of his kingdom.

    So: will we be bold to give as those who went before us gave, to be ready to make sacrifice, to give of ourselves in care and concern for the coming generations? If we do, we are in tune with the spirit of The Few, we belong in their good and - tonight - exalted company.


    [1] Battle of Britain Memorial website.
    [2] Battle of Britain Memorial website.
    [3] Daily Mail, 9 November 2009.
    [4] At Greenbelt 2011: talk available for download/cd here. Ann's book Borrowing From the Future has it in more depth.