Guy Jamieson: On path to peace accompanied by Woodbine Willie

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IT has been one of the most enjoyable features of my time in Halifax to see the fruition of an idea to help nurture a culture of peace building.

Taking the current focus of attention on the commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War, we have written a children’s play based on the life of the wartime chaplain Woodbine Willie.

Born Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy in Leeds in 1883, he used his experience of the horrors of the Great War to 
teach by word and deed the urgency with which a peace-building culture needs to be established within every community.

The role of Woodbine Willie has been taken by a pupil at Withinfields Primary School in Southowram, Halifax, and the play tries to get across the many different impressions this extraordinary man made on those whose company he kept.

As a result it is something of an emotional rollercoaster as it goes from his dreamy, forgetful, comical eccentricity to the trauma and horrors of war.

The scale of the slaughter in the First World War was so great that our reactions 100 years on can be numbed and as an event it can seem remote. So we brought it closer to home by keeping the family scene at the heart of the play.

There were other concerns we thought needed highlighting too, such as concern for poverty and the centrality of education and learning. These concerns are written into the life of Woodbine Willie, who in turn shared his experience with those around him.

Throughout the play, the audience is kept mindful of families who were at home waiting for news of loved ones and of Woodbine Willie’s example to keep building peace even when you think there is no threat of war or any kind of social breakdown.

I was serving as a priest in the aftermath of the riots in 
Bradford and a local rock band expressed this ever present threat simply and clearly in the lyrics “the fire burns when your back is turned”. When there seems to be no need to remain alert to the dangers that we humans have an unerring ability to create, we unwittingly dismantle so much of the good that has previously been achieved.

It is our hope that the children and all who took part in this project will see it as an example from history which is directly applicable today. Turning to the examples of these great figures of the past need not remain stuck in nostalgia but can be something exciting that leads to new friendships and simple conversations which cause whole neighbourhoods to change.

As part of the initiatives inspired by the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War the church, St Anne’s at Southowram, also displayed exhibitions of work produced by other children’s projects. These included a comparison exercise by the Scouts about life in 1914 compared with today, as well as contributions from a local high school Duke of Edinburgh Awards student.

The inspiring example of Woodbine Willie is also something we have tried to follow in the publication of a Peace Trail, an idea born of different community groups being asked to contribute their perspective on what it means to build peace. The trail can either be followed as a walk or simply be read imaginatively from wherever you are.

The primary school submitted a Charter for Peace composed by the school council, and there have been contributions too from a museum, a local business, the Muslim community and arts groups.

The trail asks people to consider afresh the links between daily activities and peace building, and how they in turn might make a personal contribution to this.

If there is a single hope of the Peace Trail it is to show how ordinary, everyday activities can and do contribute to a far greater work for the benefit of whole communities.

We hear lots of conversations about “building peace”, but they can easily leave us perplexed about our place in this activity. In the vast majority of instances it sounds very pleasing and agreeable and so we give the idea our immediate consent, and the word “building” suggests an activity, some kind of work in which we have a part to play.

So we are left with the question – just how do we build peace?

In construction terms, building usually takes place on barren or unused land, and the image of wasteland and districts that are perhaps run-down is a helpful illustration of how life can descend into a ruin unless peace building is actively engaged in at all times.

It doesn’t need there to be a war to provoke us into becoming peace builders; it only takes simple awareness of everyday human needs and the ease with which we can slip into breakdown.

Father Guy Jamieson is a vicar for the parishes of St Anne’s and St Thomas’s in Halifax.