Message to the Forces


The Archbishop of York has recorded a special Christmas message for soldiers serving overseas, and for their families back in the UK.

In an interview with British Forces Broadcasting Service the Archbishop said that he continued to pray daily for the British armed forces at Bishopthorpe Palace and that it was important that the whole nation remembered the sacrifices that were being made. The Archbishop has close links with the Yorkshire Regiment who lost 10 soldiers this year serving in Afghanistan.

Describing them as “the bravest of the brave”, the Archbishop paid tribute to the British forces role as peacekeepers in Afghanistan – doing a job for the safety of the whole world under United Nations mandate.

The Archbishop expressed his fears over defence cuts and said that a “very well trained, professional service” needed to be maintained as it was impossible to know what threats lie around the corner in twenty to thirty years time. He said severe cuts would “risk the safety of the nation and the peace of the world”.

The full interview with Victoria Smith of British Forces Broadcasting Service follows:

Well let me start off by asking you how would you describe your relationship with The Yorkshire Regiment, the soldiers themselves and their families?

People envy me quite a lot because I actually have a beret from The Yorkshire Regiment and when we gave a Service of Thanksgiving for their return at York Minster at the beginning of December as I was giving a blessing I took off my mitre and I wore the beret itself. The service was attended by their present Colonel in Chief, Prince Andrew. It was very good I think for a clergyman to put on this beret and for there to be a real bonding.

Also they are prayed for regularly in our Chapel here at Bishopthorpe, so the relationship has been a very good one really and every time I hear the bad news that somebody has actually been killed, I immediately pray for them and their families.

And then of course, twice a year we try to have a service here for the families of those injured or those who’ve died, just to make sure that we remember people, because it’s very easy when you are facing people who are, in my book, the bravest of the brave, doing a wonderful job, they die, their bodies are brought back, we all mourn, but then forget. Whereas here there is a constant memory, for those who are injured, for those who are coming back, for those who are serving and their families, and that’s all you can do really here.  So, the connection between the regiment and myself I think is a good one really. I was very glad that at the Queen’s birthday to take the salute, I thought: ‘At long last, yes, I’ve made it!’

Obviously it’s been a difficult year, a particularly difficult year for the Yorkshire Regiment, 3 Yorks I believe lost ten, of their men and there are army cuts as well to be contending with, so is there anything more that you can offer at this time of year when they’ve had such a difficult year, do they look to you in a different way or a special way perhaps?

Well they I think know, all the commanding officers, and all the men because I’ve visited them, they know that they are constantly in my heart, I am trying to give them a lot of encouragement, but they are very brave you see, so what do you say to a very brave person, who puts their life on the line, for defending the realm and for defending this country and the world. I mean what more can you say to them? Really very little. You look in their faces and you see these are determined, very professional people who are going out.

My greatest anxiety really in the end, if it be known, is that these defence cuts need to be done with far, far greater sensitivity because we live still in a world that is very fragile and there are people out there still, wanting to do harm to a lot of…many many people.

To replace professionally trained full time serving soldiers, with part timers, I’m afraid, for me, I don’t think that can be the backbone of the British army. So I hope whatever cuts and changes they make, our regiment, in Yorkshire will not suffer greatly because they are the bravest of the brave and I’ve seen these guys in action.

I’ve been to Afghanistan, you know in 2004 and I saw some of them they’re still doing an amazing, amazing job. They went there as peace keepers…and then what happens? They find themselves faced with all kinds of different ways of doing things.

So I hope that for the families, for the realm and its peace, for this country our armed forces, actually, will be treated with such great respect and whoever is carrying out the reduction in numbers, does it with an eye not just for now because there are financial problems, but actually twenty years from now. Twenty years from now, will you still have such an efficient, professional armed services, and if you haven’t, then you should change your plans.

And as we go into the new year there is of course a fear of redundancies, not just for those serving but for their families too, talk of loss of a battalion for The Yorkshire Regiment and also further cuts and an increase has been mentioned, a boost for the regulars, for the TA, so that it does look as if there will be changes in the short term and possibly the long term.

I always think that if you have got a very well trained, professional service, you have got to keep it to the highest level. Now I’m not underestimating the bravery of  the territorial army, because again those people I’ve met…and I’ve been to their training, and again they do a great job…but they are part-timers. Somebody who’s training day in day out to be very fit for this particular professional type of job. They can’t be replaced by part-timers.

I will say whatever reduction, whatever financial constraints we are facing, I know the phrase is “We are all in this together” but it shouldn’t mean risking the safety of the nation and the peace of the world by severe cuts, because in the long run you do not know what is around the corner.

Our world is still not a peaceful world. And so you still need very well-trained mechanised brigades, because it is still needed.  And you still get people saying: “Oh of course we can still be masterly in the air and use our air-force” but it too has already faced savage reductions.

I just hope that they do it all in the round and make sure what we’ve got is the capability, at short notice, to defend the realm…and be part of peacekeepers…I still think myself that our army though being a smaller army than the Americans, it is very well-trained and very well-disciplined and they keep to task.

So I would say, whatever reduction you are making, don’t think just now – ask yourself in thirty years time, would we still have an efficient, professional armed forces? If you haven’t, then I have got to advise against reduction right now, because in the future we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in warfare you never even contemplated we would be doing.

And what about the nature of conflict as a whole, particularly perhaps the war in Afghanistan and our involvement there, do you think we have an overall moral responsibility to get involved?

Well, when all this started in 2001, there was a United Nations mandate – and that mandate has never ever been changed. The armed forces, the British armed forces, are there under a United Nations mandate, it is not a decision by the British Government alone. They are doing it on behalf of the world, because the intention was to create peace in that place, to make sure it does not become a hot-bed for terrorists in training, and that Afghanistan as a nation can go back to the Afghans.

Remember they have gone through all kinds of different difficulties, I mean with Russia invading them and then winning that war and then becoming a training ground for terrorism – through Osama Bin Laden and many others – there is a sense in which they are there, hopefully, to leave Afghanistan to return to its own people to be self-governing, to be defended by Afghan soldiers and police, and most of the work that is being done now is to train those people so they can take over after this particular military difficulty.

And so I would say, with a moral mandate from the United Nations, the job is for the peace of the world. Not just for the safety of Britain, though that is of course a good idea as well, but that is not the main driver of why they are doing it.

This is an important time of year, not only for you but for the military padres as well, how would you explain their crucial role at this time of year and their importance to the forces themselves?

Luke in Chapter 2 tells a story of the birth of Jesus and that the time came when Augustus, emperor of the then known world, ordered everybody to return to the place where they were born and be registered. Joseph and Mary, who lived in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem because Joseph was a descendant of David. So they went to this particular city, to their place of birth by lineage, and Jesus was born there during this census for everyone. During this population census Jesus is born.

This is an illustration that God is interested in the affairs of the world, for the peace of the world. Don’t be surprised when Jesus is born that the angel goes to the Shepherds. And what is the message? “Don’t be afraid. For I bring you good news today because in the city of David a Saviour is born who is the Christ.” And suddenly this wonderful great choir from Heaven singing: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.”

You see, the question of peacekeeping and peacemaking is really at the heart of every person. And this issue of peacekeeping we see more so with the armed forces. They stop conflicts that could have escalated. We are growing up in a very dangerous world.

And the padres themselves, what particular role do they have at this time of year?

I think there role is to be there as God’s presence, and to remind every soldier, every member of the personnel that is down there, that God is concerned about you as a person. But he is also interested in peacekeeping and peacemaking, because that is the very heart of God. He is a God of peace and a God of justice. We pray daily in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. So the soldiers are reminded that they are not only accountable to their commanding officers, not only to the Crown, but also accountable to God. Therefore they are reminded that the way they do their business is to make sure that they are acting not just for themselves, but this double accountability to God and the Crown. Because of that the padres try to calm fears and worries.

It was very interesting that at the service we had at the Minster, taken by the senior chaplain of the Yorkshire Regiment, he had them in the palm of his hand when he was preaching. It felt that he had been working with them, trying to bring love and peace and courage – because sometimes people need to be told don’t be frightened – so their role is quite important. Incredible. And of course they are dressed like everyone else is dressed, so you can’t tell the difference between a padre and an ordinary soldier.

Just finally, your Grace, could you send a message to our troops out in Afghanistan and those who have returned home, those who have returned from the Yorkshire Regiment, perhaps a message for this time of year for all the troops and families who are going to be celebrating Christmas?

The message of Christmas is really the message which the angels brought to those shepherds: “Don’t be afraid.” Why? Because today a Saviour has been born and His name is Christ the Lord. The birth of this little baby was a birth that meant you and I could become friends of God again…and friends of each other. He came to bring his love, his peace, in human flesh. And when you look at this little baby, who looks like any other baby in the world, there God of humility and simplicity is giving us a gift of himself. And we too may be a gift to others.

So, if you are still in Afghanistan or you have returned or you are with your family, the message of God is: “You are loved. Don’t be afraid.” Know his peace and his love and his grace and rejoice and celebrate the fact that every morning you wake up and you are still alive, yeah, you are still loved and still cared for. May you know this wonderful peace that God gives, and may the angels give you that wonderful wonderful song: “Glory to God in the highest.”

Peace on earth begins with you and it begins with me in my heart, and then as a result of this in the world, being God’s peace to my neighbour, to my friends and particularly those who are struggling at this particular time of year.