Armed Forces Day and parallel lives in a Suffolk town
All communities manifest some form of division and it can be difficult to make connections across those divides. Bury St Edmunds, like many towns, shows more than one face to the world.
It is a pleasant cathedral town with some fine architecture and more than a whiff of Barchester. It has an outer ring of new and rather soulless housing with its share of deprivation and social dysfunction. It is a military town – home to both the regular and TA battalions of the Royal Anglians and there are a fair number of RAF bases in the town's hinterland. It also has a large and thriving Quaker Meeting.
On Armed Forces Day (25 June), several facets of Bury St Edmunds ran in parallel. A squadron of the RAF Regiment, newly returned from Afghanistan, marched through the town and took part in a medal ceremony on Angel Hill. There was a fly-past by Battle of Britain aircraft and an Apache helicopter was scheduled to land in the Abbey Gardens.
However, this did not take place as there was concern that the noise and vibration might damage the ancient walls. No one involved with this face of the town seems to have considered that landing a helicopter gunship in the grounds of a place of worship for the purposes of entertainment might be considered to damage rather more than the material fabric of the Established Church.
Less than a mile away, a quieter event was taking place. An exhibition entitled 'Armed Forces Day: an Alternative View ' was the response of Bury's Quakers to the military display and pageantry taking place around the cathedral and throughout the country. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15013)
This had taken careful planning. We were sensitive to the needs of military personnel and their families and to the tradition of the town. We had to make it clear - beyond any possibility of misunderstanding - that this was an alternative view as to how we might best show care for these courageous people. We were delighted when the official Armed Forces Day website, recognising this, took our listing. The local paper, although initially wary, also accepted this stance and ran our press release.
Believing that society may best show its concern for service personnel through questioning many of the assumptions which lead to military intervention in areas of conflict, we wanted the exhibition to invite reflection on a more ethical foreign policy, on the potential for climate change and injustice to cause conflict, on the arms trade and on the work done by groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine Israel (EAPPI).
Their work demands as much courage, discipline and readiness for sacrifice as does that of the military but these 'unarmed forces' do not receive much recognition or appreciation.
We had tremendous support from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, from the FoR, from EAPPI and from Christian Aid. Quaker Peace and Social Witness also contributed material and the husband of a local rector was generous in giving us all the Fair Trade leaflets and posters anyone could wish for.
The result was an impressive array of material on non-violent responses to conflict and on what the 18th century American Quaker John Woolman called the “seeds of war”.
Although what might be described as a 'parallel Bury St Edmunds' was engaged in the more conventional celebration of the day, a steady trickle of visitors passed through the exhibition, as did a number of members of the Meeting. Many said they had learned something and large numbers of leaflets and information sheets were taken. We had hoped we might have some military visitors, but perhaps that was to forget the nature of parallel lives.
“What's this all about?” asked one woman and seemed genuinely interested in our explanation. “Makes you think” was heard more than once while other visitors thanked us for the exhibition. For me, the most memorable remark was that made by a nonagenarian Friend. With an undertone of sadness in her voice, she remarked, “it's a long struggle for peace”.
About 100 yards down the street from the Meeting House, yet another aspect of the town made itself known. The English Defence League were holding a gathering in the garden of a pub. Their raucous singing and the presence of the police was a reminder of yet another Bury St Edmunds, existing in parallel with the military celebration and the Quaker exhibition.
I cannot deny that knowledge of their presence caused a certain level of nervousness amongst us. But in the end, they did not trouble us and we did not trouble them.
That troubles me.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
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