Monday, October 24, 2005

Outcomes of the Battle of Trafalgar

This last weekend the British celebrated one of the most significant sea victories in the nation's long and illustrious history. It was probably one of the ten great sea victories of all time -- and that is the Battle of Trafalgar. Fought in the Atlantic off the Iberian peninsula's Cape Trafalgar on October 21-23, 1805, the British fleet under the leadership of Admiral Lord Nelson, defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain.

If the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had saved England's independence as a Protestant nation, Trafalgar guaranteed that Britain would rule the waves for more than a century that followed -- and in doing so shape the modern world.

Nelson's signal to his sailors as the battle commenced is one that every English child learns at elementary school, and few forget: "England expects every man to do his duty." And do their duty they did, especially Viscount Horatio Nelson who was mortally wounded on the decks of his flagship, "The Victory," by a French sniper high in the rigging of an attacking man o'war. Today his achievement is remembered in the most spacious of central London's squares, and Nelson's statue is atop of the column in the middle of that place, Trafalgar Square.

I am at present working my way through Patrick O'Brian's magnificent books set in the Royal Navy of those years, the Jack Aubrey books that begin with "Master and Commander." O'Brian captures perfectly the flavor of that time, the sense that Britain was stretching its muscles are taking its rightful place as leader of the world. The Royal Navy was to be found everywhere, and even if some of their practices left something to be desired at that time, over the next decades the world's first really professional navy emerged.

Yet it is not the wonders of British naval power that I wish to wax eloquent over, but instead the way in which Trafalgar set the course of history for so long. While everyone knew that this was a significant victory, far in excess of Nelson's other greatest win, the earlier Battle of the Nile, I do not get the sense from reading the history of that period that they realized just how significant it was going to turn out to be.

As we look back at history with 20/20 hindsight it is so often the unexpected that turns out to be a major turning point of great importance. As in our own lives. If the woman who is now my wife had decided to skip church on an October Sunday evening in 1966 when I was being introduced to the congregation where she worshipped as their resident seminarian, then it is entirely possible that we would not be married today. All of us can probably point to such fortuitous circumstances in our own lives.

The values of a whole generation were shaped forever by the events of October 1928 when the Stock Market crashed, none of them would ever be the same again -- a theme that is played upon in all sorts of ways in the movies, most recently, perhaps, in the story of the champion race horse, Seabiscuit. Sometimes we can see this tipping points as clearly as the nose on the center of our faces, but often it is only by looking through the rearview mirror of history that we discover the truth.

On my day off today I have been trying to see if I can identify events in our own time, especially in the life of the churches, that we will look back on and see as of major significance. I suspect as far as North American Anglicanism is concerned that the foundation of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in 1976, an institution that opened its doors during my first week in this country, is of more significance than perhaps more publicized events of that year -- maybe even the General Convention's endorsement of what is today the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

There was a vision around Trinity that has reached far and wide since those days, and had put in place a significant evangelical body of leadership before ECUSA began self-destructing in 2003. Perhaps it was in some way a catalyst of that self-destruction because it played a role in establishing a body of congregations who were willing with Luther to stand up and say, "Here I Stand," when actions counter to both the word and the spirit of Scripture were enacted. Maybe there would not have been that orthodox balance in ECUSA without Trinity, and perhaps the Episcopal Church would have begun its journey to denominational oblivion far sooner.

Only time will tell whether this reading of history is right, and perhaps at this moment we are up too close for that to be considered anything more than a supposition. I suspect, also, that out of this conflagration will come a newly shaped and formed Anglicanism, although I am not sure that I will see all of its possibilities in my own lifetime.

The victory of Nelson at Trafalgar had so many direct and indirect consequences that the mind boggles. A few years later the Slave Trade was abolished in the British Empire under the leadership of William Wilberforce. This could not have happened without the power of the Royal Navy to patrol the seas and end that barbaric travesty. Without global naval power, Britain's empire would not have spread its tentacles far and wide, and with it went missionaries of every nationality and flavor that took the Gospel to unreached corners. World Christianity today, whether Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise, owes something to that great naval feat.

In the providence of God, as ghastly as battle might be, there is much to be thankful for as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

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