Radio 4 is almost invariably on in the background while I’m at my desk, which means that the long-running Home Front often drifts across my paperwork and keyboard. This is the drama cataloguing the experience of the Britons who didn’t go to war between 1914 and 1918, how World War One impacted on the lives of communities and individuals apart from the fighting itself. The characters are fictional but the situations in which they find themselves all too real. Obviously it’s a vast project, and I’ve only caught snatches. One of its impressive aspects I have picked up on, though, is the way it treats religion as a serious factor in people’s lives, as something that they talk, think and argue about. Characters are even heard praying.
World War One shook the Church of England, and in one aspect particularly: its treatment of the dead. One of the key results of the Reformation had been, as Eamonn Duffy expressed it, to redraw the boundaries of the human community so that the dead were excluded, beyond the reach of the kind of prayer which had been so great a concern of medieval Christians: the War reversed this process. The experience of death had been so traumatic and so universal that the pressure to include the dead once again in the community of God’s compassion was irresistible. A couple of decades earlier, Anglicans who’d wanted to pray for the dead kept quiet about it for fear of reprisal; over the course of the four years of horror, they were emboldened. They erected ‘War Shrines’ outside churches – not yet ‘War Memorials’, these were places of prayer and not simply remembrance; they began services of prayer, and, later on, in parish after parish, requiem eucharists for the souls of the departed.
This struggle emerges, to the writers’ great credit, in Home Front. Set, at the moment, in Folkestone, the town has just suffered the Tontine Street bombing, the loss of over sixty lives in one terrible moment. Funerals are being arranged. Alice Macknade, whose daughter was killed, begs Revd Walter Hamilton, vicar of St Stephen’s, to pray for her soul as part of the service, ‘just a small prayer’: as politely as he can, but definitely, he refuses. He doesn’t believe in that. Mrs Macknade meets Revd Winwood from St Jude’s who agrees to do what she wants, privately. And so, gradually, theology melts before the heat of sorrow and loss, as it should, and the Church reaches out to embrace those who have passed out of this earthly life. Well done, Radio 4 (it makes up, a bit, for some past howlers).