In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
This morning I received the following signal from the Admiralty:
“On the 214th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar I join with you in remembering all those who fought at this great engagement. The bravery and dedication displayed then continues to be an inspiration today to all those women and men who serve throughout the Naval Service.
In addition may I take this opportunity to join you with you in remembering, our comrade and your congregant, Admiral Sir Desmond Cassidi whose service to his country in war and in peace we remember with great respect and deep gratitude.
Admiral Tony Radikin CB ADC
First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff”
Trafalgar that great naval victory which saw Britain win and retain dominance of the sea for the next century. Which saw a grateful nation build the highest monument in the country to a single person in a square named after the battle he fought and won. Which saw that same hero accorded the largest state funeral ever given, before or since, to any citizen of this land. And a burial in the heart of our capital’s great cathedral of St Paul’s. Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. What does all this mean to us here at St Brides today? We are after all a Christian not a military community. Our particular attachment is to journalists and journalism. In any event we live in a different age, a different world to Nelson’s. All this tub thumping, flag waving, battle remembering stuff is all a bit , you know, out of kilter with the prevailing mood – isn’t it?
Well, yes …. And no.
For a start, and let’s be blunt, speaking as a former journalist myself, Nelson was a gift to journalism. His presence in print sold newspapers. He was in fact a raging show-off. He was a publicity seeker of the first order. And all of us who have been or who are journalists are always grateful to those politicians, celebrities, business leaders, and – yes – some Bishops and some priests, who seek the limelight. It is a phenomenon familiar to us today as it was then - Nelson provided good copy. He was constantly writing to those in authority recounting his adventures and exploits. Nelson was an expert communicator. By the time of Trafalgar he was a very well established and very famous public figure. He had tried, and failed, to become a Member of Parliament. For him battles were to be won on the high seas, not at Westminster. He accepted where his duty lay and he made the most of it.
Nelson was the son and brother of priests. He grew up in a Norfolk Rectory. He knew the Church well and was a faithful, prayerful Christian. For him there was no conflict between pursuing his duty in battle with his personal faith. His eve of battle prayer, reprinted in the back of our service sheet, is testament to the strength and fervour of his faith. It was his faith too that informed how he treated those who served under him. Relentless in battle he was nevertheless famously considerate of his sailors – an approach which earned him tremendous respect and affection in his lifetime. Nelson always ensured he had a chaplain with him when at sea. His lifelong journey of faith is an example of continuous struggle and engagement. He never gave up.
Nelson was unquestionably courageous. Courageous in facing up to the enemy, frequently placing himself at the head of his men and at the centre of the battle. He was frequently seasick, suffered from malaria, was often in pain from his loss of an arm and a damaged eye. He learnt to write with his left hand and to eat single handed. He did not allow any of these setbacks to undermine his resolve to do his duty. At the time of his death he was pacing his quarterdeck in full uniform, urging on the crew of HMS Victory and overseeing the battle.
He was of course no saint. His relationship with Lady Hamilton and the birth of their daughter caused a scandal. His treatment of the rebels at Naples, sometime before, was thought harsh in an age that was notable for its harshness. He was not perfect and would never have claimed to be so.
He expected the best of himself and the best from those around him. His famous Trafalgar signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ signified his own determination to succeed and his expectation of those around him.
Let us not forget that at stake for Nelson and for Britain was nothing less than the future of the country. The battle took place in the middle of a long series of battles between Britain and her continental opponents. Then, as now, keeping the sea lanes open was vital for the country’s economic success. Today over 90 per cent of goods flow in and out of the country by sea. The modern Royal Navy is engaged on many duties Nelson would have been familiar with – protecting shipping, keeping the sea lanes open, and ensuring the security of our underwater communications cables.
As an Honorary officer in the Royal Navy I am privileged to spend time at sea with the frigate to which I am attached, HMS Kent. Kent is one of a number of ships currently deployed to the Gulf, where they are escorting convoys of merchant ships to ensure they are not captured. It is onerous and dangerous work.
Whilst he craved public recognition and honour, and won a fair share of both, Nelson was no respecter of authority and convention. Famously he disobeyed direct orders in order to secure a victory by putting his telescope to his blind eye. He was a great innovator and eschewed the conventional tactical wisdom of his time.
Our Gospel today ended with this line: “…..for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
As Christians, as pilgrims in the great journey of faith to which we are called, ours is not the way of great glory and adulation. Nor in the promulgation of the faith do we have recourse to violence and bloodshed, but there are examples from Nelson that we can draw on.
A continuing personal engagement with God through prayer and dialogue with those around us. Throughout his life Nelson wrote prayers and invoked God.
A healthy disrespect for all those in authority and for all those who would seek to impose convention upon us. After all Jesus himself was no feint heart when it came to challenging those in charge.
An energetic and dynamic persistence in pursuing our cause.
A care and consideration for the welfare for those around us.
And a willingness to innovate and be creative in what we do and to dare to be at the forefront of the action. Nelson famously crossed the enemy line, sailing straight through the opposition to get in amongst them to stir things up. We too must be willing to head out beyond our comfort zones and stir things up.
St John Henry Newman said: “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”
In the last few days we have witnessed the canonisation of this great priest and teacher. In his words we find echoes of Nelson’s approach, as well as that of our Lord’s.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” we heard today. Absolutely I echo that. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We are all called to the grace that comes with humility. For this we need to be constantly changing, what we do, how we do it, as individuals and as a church. Only with true humility comes the possibility to draw nearer to the Father. For us all that is the challenge and that is the opportunity.