Skip Content

WATCH: The Archbishop preaching at the Aldeburgh Festival

Monday 10th June 2013

Yesterday during a special service celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, the Archbishop said the composer's famous War Requiem - by bringing us "not to despair but to hope" - has something to say about the nature of Jesus Christ

As guest of honour at the festival, the Archbishop spoke about "the challenge" of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Despite its stark portrayal of the "darkness" of the world, he said the music ultimately brings us "not to despair but to hope".
Celebrating the centenary of Britten, the service at St Peter and St Paul church, Aldeburgh, featured Britten's Missa Brevis, sung by the choristers of King's College Cambridge.

Speaking at Aldeburgh's St Peter and St Paul church - where Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, are buried - the Archbishop said God doesn't give us simple answers to human conflict, but ignoring Him only leads to "chaos and bitterness". 

He told the packed-out church, and crowds watching outside, that "while we may not be a country at war", we may still be experiencing conflict in ourselves, in our families, our communities, or our economy. 

"Life is infinitely complicated and putting God into the middle of it does not make it less so. Don’t expect easy answers because God is around. But taking God out of the picture does not make life simpler or easier either. Rather, doing that reduces life to the chaos and bitterness and evil that is all human existence in some ways," he said. 

Just as Benjamin Britten's music "demands that we find our own answer", so too does the Gospel of Jesus Christ, said Archbishop Justin.

"It poses a question and says, How do you respond?"



Read the sermon

Archbishop Justin's sermon at the Aldeburgh Festival Service, St Peter and St Paul Church, Aldeburgh, 9 June 2013


As we’ve heard this morning and as, for that matter, I heard last night at the Maltings with Les Illuminations and some other pieces, music  subverts our feelings, unsettles our emotions and reveals a fresh vision to the world. The mystery of music is to catch us unawares and overthrow us while we are bathed in the sensual pleasure of enjoying it.

We all know the comment by Tippet, that Britten was one of the most genuinely musical people he had ever met – I think he may have said ‘entirely’ musical people had had ever met. From early on he read music as easily as he read the English language.

That perhaps is what is normal with the greatest of musicians. But there’s one additional thing which sets him apart in a very small club supreme artists of history: he had the prophetic ability to see beyond appearances. And in his art – as we find in the God-given gifts of art in Old Testament and New – our world is revealed to us in a new way. He interacted with the world in the complexity of his own psychology – complex, as is ours. His own psychology, his own understanding of the world, his own emotions, his sexuality, his feelings. All the things that we all experience, each with his own particularity and materiality. But he interpreted it in a way that opened our eyes.

After World War II the German theologian Moltmann posed the question of how we could do theology after Auschwitz. In the War Requiem, Britten gives an answer to that question through music. He compels an exploration of the tensions, the struggles and the brilliant darkness of the world in which we live, all held in the hand of God. The majestic, terrifying scale and power of his creation tears into us as we see film of Syria, hear news of Nigeria, rumour of the Republic of Congo, and so many others.

As we all know well, the War Requiem holds in tension the poems of Wilfred Owen and the structure of a requiem mass. The initial performance was in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, for the consecration of the new building. It’s a building which, as the service sheet says, I know well. We lived in Coventry for five years and I was in charge of the reconciliation ministry of the Cathedral, and, when I was not traveling in areas of war, worshipped in that cathedral, which is of a piece with the music of Britten in the War Requiem. It is a gigantic place for a gigantic work, and it is a place which in wood and stone and cloth and concrete and imagination, speaks the same complex message which the War Requiem – for all its difficulty to perform in terms of its huge demands of space and resources – speaks so powerfully to our hearts. 

Wilfred Owen's war poetry was not widely recognised for its power until Britten used it in the War Requiem. Set to music, appreciation was transformed – for its remarkable depth of irony, and its challenge of deeply held myths. We need to be clear that Owen was not a pacifist, and that is one of the tensions in the music of the Requiem. His last letters before his death in November 1918 reveal someone who deeply enjoyed the comradeship and the experience of the army. He was willing to kill, and in much of his poetry, including some of that which Britten takes into the War Requiem, there is an ambivalence about the nature of war.

For example, the poem ‘The Next War’, placed after the Dies Irae. Its first line, "out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death", contrasts with the last lines: "when each proud fighter brags / He wars on death – for life; not men – for flags."

Or after the Recordare Jesu Pie, the poem ‘On Seeing a Piece of our Artillery brought into Action’, that begins: "Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm", and ends, "may God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!" But in the middle are the words: "reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm".

Owen was no pacifist. Britten took something that was in itself ambivalent – his poetry – and put it in the context of something that is totally unambivalent: the requiem mass. The underlying theology of the mass brings us ‘in paradisum’, into heaven, into paradise, the conviction of it is that all those who are in Christ will be in heaven.

And the prophetic challenge of the music confronts us. Life is infinitely complicated and putting God into the middle of it does not make it less so. Don’t expect easy answers because God is around. But taking God out of the picture does not make life simpler or easier either. Rather, doing that reduces life to the chaos and bitterness and evil that is all human existence in some ways. For all of us here today – and outside, in the cold – or especially caught up war and conflict. And Britten’s wonderful music demands that we find our own answer – as the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself, it poses a question and says: ‘How do you respond?’

At the end of the Mass the music changes its nature, becomes gentle and hopeful, and in the final words of the mass, brings together the words of the last of Owen’s poems in the piece - ‘Strange Meeting’ - let us sleep now’ with the final words of the mass ‘requiescant in pace. Amen’ (let us rest in peace, so be it). Even there is a profound tension that brings us back to why we are in a church – or outside it. It is found in the readings, too, that we had this morning. The Psalm is one of unrestrained celebration, completely hysterical over-emotion. (It was read with great restraint.) But actually it’s a temple going mad. A band just playing whatever comes to mind, making the biggest noise it can to celebrate the love of God. But in the reading from Revelation is the writer's recognition of struggle. The churches to whom he was writing suffered - as many do many in the world today. They had conquered, but at the cost of their own lives, in the vision he sees in heaven. The vision of Revelation is not suffering as virtue, but suffering redeemed in the glory of God's presence, in a time of judgement and all being set right.

And that brings us back, with the mass, and the tension with the poetry, to the fact that at the heart of all Christian belief are some very, very simple truths. The Church – forgive me, those others ordained with me – is very good, indeed brilliant, at complicating the truths of the gospel of Christ, at throwing in other issues, however important (which I seem to spend all my time on at the moment, but enough of that…)

But the underlying truths, which we hold, which we come to in the simplicity of the Eucharist today, are very simple: that God lived among us in a place of war and horror; Jesus, God Himself, came to a country at war in a world of war. That He died so that we could know – by Him bearing all that is evil and wrong in the world and in each of us – that He has taken all that wrong on His own shoulders. And that He rose from the dead and ascended to heaven and sends His Holy Spirit who fills our lives and leads us into all creativity and human flourishing and life forever with Him.

And that He will return in glory and judgement so grand that only the startling imagery of the apocalyptic works of the Bible can do it justice.

The gospel reading brings all those grand truths to the personal, to you and me. The readings are for St Cecelia's day – this church is one of the very few (in the Trinity chapel there) in which there is glass representing St Cecelia, patron saint of music. That’s nice, isn’t it. But a martyr; a bit less nice. Her faithfulness was out of love for the person of Jesus, and experience of His love. She died for Him, because she knew Him. She knew Him, the ascended, risen Christ; He knew her. That personal relationship with God Himself that we see in the story of Mary and Martha – that personal relationship is better than the activism of Martha.

Now whenever this is preached on and I’m listening, particularly when I was in a parish, I sit there and think of all the people who have done the flowers – which are wonderful – who have cleaned and decorated the church. And wouldn’t be unhelpful if someone had said to them, “Don’t do that – just sit quietly at the feet of Jesus and enjoy His presence” – and those who’ve done it would think, “He’s got to be kidding…” (It’s easy enough for me – like all Archbishops I have an entirely empty diary, I wonder how to fill the days.)

But the activism of Martha is displacement from the challenge of facing Jesus Christ. In a country at war, Mary sits at the feet of God, of Jesus, in peace and joy, and that is offered to us today. And we may not be in a country of war, but in our lives we may be at war within ourselves, within families, within communities, within our economy.

In other words, the tension within the War Requiem, which is so extraordinarily brought before us by Benjamin Britten, is resolved in the person of Jesus Christ. With Jesus there are final answers, even if those answers emerge at the end of a terrible path of suffering – and it is the path that He himself took. Some three years ago I stood in a village in Africa talking to a man who a few days before had hidden in a well for three days in the village, while raiders slaughtered the members of his village including his wife, his mother and his five children. He sat on an ash heap – the ashes that had fallen from his burning roof – a very Job in the depth of his grief and suffering, and yet he spoke of the hope of Christ. And even as he did so some of that raiding group stood some 300 metres away, visible to us all on a rocky outcrop,  silhouetted against the sky, AK-47s visible.

Owen is ambivalent. His main rage is for those who observe, who send. Britten uses his poem 'The Parable of the Young Man and the Old', set with beautiful irony in the Offertorium – in the offertory – with its terrible last words, when Abraham has been offered the sacrifice of the Ram (in Christian understanding, an image of Christ) in substitution for his son Isaac, but Owen writes: "But the old man would not so /and slew his son/ and half the seed of Europe one by one." There is a desperation in the words and the music, a despair which is confronted with the call of Christ in the Mass and the resolution of the Paradisum.

A Christian faith that ignores suffering is absurd pietism. A world view that loses sight of Jesus who suffers, and triumphs, is missing the defining resolution of history. We must acknowledge the complexity and pain of all our lives, from the tearing cruelty of conflict to the empty desperation of communities caught in economic tides and storms with no lifeboats available there. All this the Requiem Mass knows; all this is seen in our readings. And yet they confront suffering and horror and emptiness and fear and meaninglessness with the conviction and reality of God's goodness, seen in Jesus, in which all things are bound together, and beauty springs out of darkness, illuminating our path to God.

© Justin Welby 2013 


Back · Back to top