MY wife and I first came across white poppies in the late 1980s, and enthusiastically wore them for several years before discovering how to obtain supplies for other people. We tentatively offered the poppies for sale in the congregation we led and were gratified by how many people were keen to buy them - although one or two church members refused to do so. All this became part of a larger strategy to realign our Remembrance Sunday celebrations away from a mere commemoration of past conflicts and into an expression of sadness at humans’ inability to resolve their differences in a peaceable way.

When we moved to the East of England last year, it seemed natural that I should offer white poppies for sale in our new church. Admittedly without consulting the members of our Church Council, I purchased 25 poppies from the PPU and placed a small announcement in the Sunday notice sheet saying that I had some white poppies to sell ‘as well as, or instead of’ the normal red ones, which would continue on sale in the church. I was not expecting the furore that those few words would provoke!

The first inkling of trouble arose the same evening, when a church member who had been a member of the armed forces rang to express his displeasure with my announcement. This was followed by further calls the next day, suggesting that I might have triggered more controversy than I had intended: apparently feelings run high in this part of the world, as members of the local regiment suffered grievously in the Japanese PoW camps in World War 2. I think some people felt that I, a newcomer, to the area, was not being sufficiently respectful to their memory.

At this point a local radio station got hold of the story, the result being an invitation to be interviewed alongside the leader of the local British Legion. It was a novel experience driving to the studio and hearing myself as an item on the news! In the event, our debate was courteous and, although we could not agree on the white poppies, we found we had more in common than I might have expected. For instance, the British Legion man was totally opposed to the current intervention in Iraq (although not the 1991 war), which surprised me.
From there, things moved on apace! The local papers, both daily and evening, got wind of things, interviewing and photographing me. The story passed to the regional television news, with a further interview in my church. It was then taken up by the ‘Daily Express’ and the ‘Mail’, who sensed a ‘trendy Vicar’ story, and I also received invitations to speak on BBC Wales and Belfast! I was amazed at all this publicity and I did not enjoy it. However I must say that the reporting was pretty accurate and fair, and it did serve to put the poppies on the map!

By this time, I realised that I had stirred up a bit of a rumpus and I certainly did not want to offend people in the church, especially at this early stage in my ministry. So I wrote a letter in our monthly church magazine, explaining my position - perhaps I should have done this earlier! Many who read it were intrigued by the white poppies’ long history and were reassured by their origin in the Co-operative movement, which is greatly respected in this area. In fact, people who bought them included some older folk who had served in the last World War, and were happy to wear them alongside the red ones. When I finally sold out, some people said that they would be asking me for white poppies next year.

I could, of course, have said much more than I did. As a nonconformist Christian minister, I am sickened by the recent proliferation of Remembrance celebrations with their evocation of nostalgia and nationalism, and their almost saintly portrayal of ordinary servicemen and women (while largely ignoring the many innocent civilians who died). It seems self-evident to me that Christians ought to be flying in the face of the prevailing culture by affirming peace, rather than war, in the name of Christ, and I am amazed that so many in the churches never seem to question the annual Remembrance cult. Personally I would love to organise an ‘alternative remembrance service’ which focuses on repentance, prayer and recognition of the terrors of today’s world, and leave off commemorating the past. But I’m not sure if I’ve got the courage for that!

Obviously the arguments involved are not simple, especially when one is faced with the contention that people died before I was born in order to secure freedom in the world today. But I am disturbed by the emphasis which is constantly being given to past conflicts: World War 2 finished over 60 years ago and, as we well know, there has hardly been a day since where people have not been dying or killing others somewhere in the world. In the context of the sale of white poppies, my complaint is possibly not so much with the military as with political leaders who callously seem to believe that force is the way of solving any situation, and with a society in which ‘fighting for your corner’ is seen as better than seeking compromise and reconciliation.

Finally the furore died down. As a Minister, one has to be sensitive to peoples’ feelings, but everyone in the church does still seem to be on speaking terms with me! My selling of the poppies does seem to have raised the profile of peace quite significantly at this church, and caused people to think carefully about the whole Remembrance tradition, so perhaps I have done some good. Anyway, the whole outcry seems to have blown over now - but we will see what happens next year!

Andrew is a Minister of a Nonconformist Church in Eastern England.

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