It was my joy to be asked to officiate at the Royal Airforce Association Battle of Britain Day service here in Whitton yesterday. In the early days of my engagement with the parish, just after my appointment, the kind and generous people who had a care for my mortal being expressed concern that such a service might be too much of an ask on what would be my first Sunday in post. Fortunately, services for the Armed Services, their veterans and cadets featured a great deal in my last role, so no worries!
The church was full, and although the RAFA is largely a membership by association (only a very small handful are Airforce veterans), we were able to welcome well over a hundred air cadets who gave up time to show their commitment to the uniform and organisation of which they are members. They did themselves proud, as did the band, as did the talented young bugler who played the Last Post and Reveille in front of us all (including the Mayor of Richmond).
What was distinct this time from others that I have had a part in is that the cadets numbered those conspicuously from other faiths. There were Sikh, Jewish and Muslim cadets (and Veterans), all together in the church. I didn't want to ignore their presence and so made a very quick decision about how to proceed.
First, the welcome. I made a point of welcoming my brothers and sisters of other faiths along with the dignitaries, veterans, members etc. I wanted to acknowledge them formally. Secondly, at the point when we reached the time for prayer, I further acknowledged that I would be (obviously) using Christian prayers [the Lord's Prayer, for example], and that those who followed a different guiding light (the use of the word 'god' excludes some) may take the opportunity to pray in their own way. To be honest, it seemed like the only polite thing to do.
Afterwards, a veteran approached me and said how grateful he was for that 'permission'. He is an observant Jew and appreciated that a time for prayer was made available for him as a member of a sibling faith. He also commented that he thought it a very brave thing for me to have done!
I have thought about this over and over. Why 'brave'? I am comfortable in my faith sufficiently that I am happy to acknowledge that of others. They were there to celebrate an affiliation to an ideal that is human and not purely Christian, and that is the ideal of defending the poor and weak and their freedom. He was a former pilot who knew what that ideal looked like in practice, so rather than 'brave', it now seems to me that it was the only truly right thing to do!