Neil McNicholas: Respectful tradition that is worth upholding

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ON a website explaining the history of the two minutes silence observed on Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, it explains that King George V issued a proclamation on November 7, 1919, asking that “at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities… so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead”.

This period of silence has now become a traditional practice, one which is annually observed with universal reverence and respect – especially as it is kept at services to remember the dead which are attended by people who are there specifically for that reason.

From this, I suspect, has developed the practice of remembering, at the beginning of football matches for example, individuals who have died who were significant to the home club or to the national game, by observing a minute’s silence.

There is something particularly powerful about upwards of 50,000 or 60,000 people keeping absolute and respectful silence in someone’s memory, and even more so when the traditional rivalry between fans gives way to a united demonstration of respect: for the Hillsborough deceased, for example, at a Liverpool versus Everton derby, or at Old Trafford for those who died in the Munich air disaster.

But sadly, as seems to be the way of it with far too many things these days, tradition is giving way to compromise as we increasingly accommodate the lowest common denominator amongst us.

From somewhere – possibly Italy, one source suggests – the one minute’s silence is now being increasingly replaced by a minute’s applause and basically all because no one wants to risk the embarrassment of morons in the crowd making their individual voices heard by shrieking or whooping or shouting derogatory remarks during the silence.

Because one or two bad apples can’t keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves for just one minute in the day, everyone else is deprived of that universal encouragement to the focus of minds and hearts – absolute silence.

As King George said, perfect stillness makes it possible for the thoughts of everyone to be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the dead. During such a period of silence, many people will pray. It’s not compulsory and, indeed, for those not in the habit of praying, or those with no belief in God or the after-life, that same silence gives them the opportunity to respectfully remember the dead in their own private way. As soon as you lose that silence, however, the opportunity for reflection is lost and prayer is more difficult.

And so this past weekend the death of Sir Tom Finney was marked before matches throughout the country, but there was clearly a degree of confusion: whether to applaud while the announcement was being made prior to a minute’s silence; or to applaud instead of the minute’s silence; or referees having to shorten the minute when applause gradually began despite the silence. Before one televised match, even as the public announcement was being made asking people to keep a minute’s silence, many ignored the request and began to clap anyway.

Applause is all very well in its own way as an expression of appreciation or congratulation, but that’s not how or why this latest practice began; it was purely and simply an excuse for, shall we say, “official noise” so that those sad individuals who might interrupt the silence will no longer have the opportunity to do so. Anyone can stand and clap (and, of course, we should stand and men should remove their hats or caps), but it takes a considerable degree of concentrated self-control to stand in absolute silence even for just one minute, let alone the longer two minutes of war dead remembrance, but it is precisely that aspect of focusing on “other” for once, on having some other purpose other than “self”, which is the whole point.

Again I ask the question, why are we selling out to that element? Wouldn’t it be far better and more supportive of the principles of respect and reverence – not to mention the sensibilities of the majority – for anyone deliberately breaking the silence to be turned over to the stewards by those around them and ejected from the ground? But no, we compromise our principles by selling out to disrespect and ignorance, and now we find ourselves clapping the dead – which isn’t our tradition, one that developed from a remembrance in silence of the guns of war falling silent.

If the gesture is worthwhile, can’t a football crowd also fall silent, just for a minute?

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in the Diocese of Middlesbrough.