Pentecost 3: 100 years of the Dover House Estate
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Readings: 1 Kings 19. 15-16,19-21, Galatians 5.1,13-25, Luke 9.51-62
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
There’s an expression well known in the army: there’re no atheists in foxholes. Meaning that in a tight spot people will always reach for the Bible. This is borne out in studies of war and religion, and, still today, services on operations, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, are well attended even if this doesn’t translate to garrison churches on returning home. One bishop during the First World War reported from the trenches: ‘The soldier has got religion, I’m not sure that he has got Christianity’; without doubt, soldiers are a superstitious lot; and despite its peace and quiet, if South West London has a lot of anything, it’s foxholes.
Thinking ourselves back to 1919 (partying or not), the First World War had brought about an unprecedented upheaval across Europe and the world. The nineteenth-century had seen the coming together of Europe into blocks. In 1800 Europe contained 500 political powers. By 1900 there were just twenty. In that century the percentage of European ownership of the world rose from 35 to 85 percent. Britain claimed a quarter of the world’s land; Russia covered one sixth of it. Many of these great empires, the Romanov dynasty’s, the Hapsburgs’ Austria-Hungary, Kaiser’s Germany, and the Ottoman empire were in ruins by 1918. In 1914 there were three republics in Europe. By 1918 there were thirteen.
And by the end of the First World War, 65 million soldiers had fought. Nine million were killed, eight million held prisoner, twenty-one million were wounded — not counting the scores crushed by post-traumatic stress. Then Spanish Flu, in the year following the war, as the Dover House Estate was being planned, outdid the four years of violence, carrying off 30 million.
It’s often assumed that the War shattered confidence and belief in the British empire and humanity. In the same way people assume that the soldiers returned from the dreadful carnage atheists to a disillusioned secularized nation. The opposite is true. Statistically, by reports and church attendance through the 20s, war returned soldiers with greater piety. It’s also striking how many, Christian or not, spoke of the presence of the ‘White Comrade’ on the battlefield, and the amount of poetry given to finding a common language for the soldiers’ experience and Christ’s passion; it seemed that in the trenches Christianity had ‘stooped from the sky… It had become incarnate’.
The war also brought about a great deal of Social change - the Archbishop of Canterbury declared field work on Sundays acceptable in 1917. Unsurprisingly for British culture, binge drinking, particularly from soldiers, became a problem. Before the war pubs were open from 5am - 12.30am on weekdays. These were shortened, particularly to prevent morning and afternoon drinking. By 1918 illegitimacy rates had increased by 30% and divorce rates through the war tripled. While there was a set path for dealing with war widows and their children, what should be done with bereaved girls and illegitimate children? Victorian attitudes to unwed mothers now seemed heartless.
For the soldiers on the continent a different problem arose, as British chaplain Tom Pym remarked: ‘gonorrhoea is a minor discomfort compared to wounds or death cheerfully faced in battle, and is much more pleasurably obtained’. I suspect this is the Works of the Flesh St Paul talked about. Padre Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, also known as “Woodbine Willy”, (who won the military cross for bravery helping the wounded and whose son was vicar here through the 50s) noted the number of soldiers who brought up versions of the Problem of Evil: how do you reconcile Christianity with ‘the bayoneting of Germans and the shambles of the battlefield’? It seemed to many that Christianity and war were entirely at odds. At one point Kennedy found himself in the front line when a strafe started. ‘Who are you?’ asked a Sergeant, to which Kennedy replied “I’m the church.” The sergeant countered “Then what the ****** hell are you doing here?”
Here we can see a shift in emphasis in theology also reflected in the building of the Dover House Estate. The Dover House Estate was built over a decade from 1919. It arrived as part of the ‘Homes fit for heroes’ movement, that tried to improve living conditions for the those returning from the war. The attempt to clear slums and build decent housing was as much to do with the threat of Bolshevism as social concern, and it struggled through lack of funds and skilled builders, which is why it took a decade to build; but this estate is certainly one of the success stories.
It also plays an important role in the history of St Margaret’s as although we became a Church of England church in 1912, we only became a parish in 1923, undoubtedly because of the many new souls coming to West Putney. So while the Son of Man might have nowhere to lay his head, or as we shall shortly sing: ‘In life no house, no home my Lord on earth might have’; for the returning soldiers here was a place to lay your head, and a ready built church to bring the new community together. And here is the connection.
At the heart of Christianity is a doctrine which for some seems very strange and contradictory, but which is the whole of Christianity. That God became Man. God became Man in order to share our suffering; to teach us how to live; to place eternity is within our grasp. The kingdom of heaven is here. That as we love, we encounter and grasp something of the reality of God. And actually the doctrine makes sense. How could we connect with God if he had not already connected with us? Why would God create a universe if he did not intend in some way to be part of the fabric of it and know it from the inside out? Where is God to be found if not in the most human of experiences: in rigid fear, in life and death moments, in loyalty and service to the point of death?
The incarnation that was grasped in the war was febrile, human, it was the blood, sweat and tears that made the Passion an everyday reality. These are those who knew what it meant for fire to come down from heaven and to leave the dead to bury the dead. But there is an incarnation in a community. There is the old foundation stone that reminds us of the faith we have inherited. There is a spire that points our hope to God, an altar that gathers the people as at a feast, in brotherly love.
St Margaret’s, which became a parish as the Estate was being built, is the incarnation of West Putney’s faithful. And for those people returning home with the experience of trauma, service and sacrifice, who stood firm for freedom, not for self-indulgence, but as servants of one another; this was their church that they shaped through their faith and experience. So the choir stalls behind me are the only ones I know which are themselves a war memorial, decorated with symbols of war and peace; while Humphrey has written a piece on the crucifix above the pulpit, given by an officer who had received comfort gazing on the large wayside crosses of Northern France. His speculation was that perhaps this was given by a soldier who was recuperating at Dover House, which was used as a hospital for amputees during the war. Whatever the story, the answer to the sergeant who questioned Studdert-Kennedy on what the hell he, the Church, was doing in the middle of a strafing attack, is that that is exactly where the church should be. Incarnate in the midst of people in difficulty. That is in fact the whole of the Gospel.
We are not so far from this generation. Very likely one person here has met someone who knew our first vicar. Our first hymn this morning, All my hope on God is founded, was sung at the consecration of St Margaret’s in 1912. So for us St Margaret’s is human and divine. It bears all the marks of the many hands that have shaped it over the years, the vicars, the churchwardens, the artists, the singers, the carpenters, the youth-workers, but it is here as a work of God. It is here to remind us that between the many offerings of time and talents, the imperfect lives of the faithful, there is a work of God to be discerned. Gently raising the prayers of the people, and shaping lives to follow Christ more nearly, day by day.
The church is the visible reminder of God’s presence in the life of our community. But it is we the faithful who are truly the church, sharing God’s love as the living reminders of the Incarnate God who came amongst us in hardship and tragedy, to share our pain and teach us to love. It is we who continue to sing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ – written in 1923, just before St Margaret’s became a parish, as a tie to that generation and as a reminder that through all the changes of time, for strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, God remains faithful and his mercies remain for evermore.