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Sermon for the Service celebrating 100 years of Women in the Royal Navy 9th July 2017

Monday 10th July, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

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Sermon given by Rev Christopher Harrison at a service to mark One Hundred Years of Women in the Royal Navy

St Mary’s Nottingham 9th July 2017


Our celebration today is not just of an anniversary.  It is rather a celebration of a journey which has taken place over the last hundred years.  A journey which started with modest but brave beginnings, which has seen the role of women in the Royal Navy grow and develop, and reach a point which, today, represents a considerable distance travelled since those early days 100 years ago.


The Women’s Royal Naval Service was founded in 1917, during the dark and difficult years of the First World War. There were not enough men for all the jobs within the Royal Navy.  But this came at a time when in society more widely, women were finding new roles and seeking greater opportunities.  The Suffragette movement was part of this movement for change.  It therefore seemed increasingly natural that women should take on certain responsibilities within the Royal Navy, albeit within a distinct organisation known as the Women’s Royal Naval Service, WRNS, or Wrens.  There were, however, clear limits as to the roles which those in the Wrens could take on, under the motto ‘Never at Sea’.  But these roles soon grew from the clerical, the catering and telephonist jobs to sail making, driving, maintaining aircraft, signalling and coding.  Some Wrens worked overseas during the First World War, in Malta, Gibraltar and Italy.  Numbers grew rapidly, and at the end of the war in 1918 the Wrens had around 5,000 ratings and nearly 450 officers. 


By the time the Second World War began in 1939, the roles and responsibilities undertaken by the Wrens grew further.  Wrens became wireless operators, meteorologists, cipher officers, supply officers and Boats’ Crew Wrens.  Some of these tasks required considerable technical skills.  There were those who worked with the Royal Marines; some worked in combined operations, including service on the continent of Europe following the D Day landings.  Serving as a Wren did not necessarily bring with it a guarantee of safety; in August 1941 21 Wrens were killed on board the SS Aguila, when it was torpedoed en route for Gibraltar.   By the end of World War 2, around 75,000 Wrens had served, playing an invaluable role in our nation’s war effort and making their unique contribution to the Allies’ victory.


After the War, the journey continued.  In 1949, following the outstanding service of the Wrens in the war it was announced that the WRNS would become an integral part of the naval service, along with the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve, which was formed in 1952.  However, women remained excluded from seagoing, flying, and weapons training roles.  But this was to change, and the formal integration of women into the Royal Navy gradually took place over a number of years as from the 1970s.  The training of men and women became more and more integrated, and an increasing range of naval roles became open to women.  HMS Mercury welcomed its first female First Lieutenant in 1979.  In 1990, the Royal Navy asked Wrens – both officers and ratings – to volunteer for service at sea, and the first group joined HMS Brilliant in October of that year.  The Women’s Royal Naval Service was formally disbanded on 1st November 1993, with around four and a half thousand women integrated fully into the Royal Navy. 


No longer were women simply playing a supporting role; they could serve in the Royal Navy on equal terms with men.  It was not long before women in the Royal Navy were given the opportunity to combine a career with family life.  Women soon began to take up a range of key roles such as helicopter pilot, minewarfare and clearance diving officer, and members of the submarine service.  Women soon rose to senior positions in the Navy and there were those who secured honours such as the Green Beret and Military Cross.  Women have served in the Royal Navy in conflicts such as the first Gulf War, the Balkans, the 2003 Iraq War and in Afghanistan.


We are proud, here at St Mary’s, to join in the national celebrations of 100 years of Women in the Royal Navy.  The last hundred years have seen a remarkable journey from the time of the first Wrens.  It can be said with some truth, I believe, that while the increasing role of women in our armed forces generally has in some respects gone hand in hand with wider social changes, it has also helped to drive those wider changes.  As women have shown so clearly, by their role in the armed forces, that traditional stereotypes no longer apply, this has actively contributed to the creation of new and more modern role models, in which women are not automatically seen as just taking on the supporting roles, with the more important jobs being kept for the men.  I have to say that in our own parish it has been splendid to have the wisdom and experience of Rachel Farrand, who was formerly a member of the Royal Naval Reserve; and also at St Peter’s Sarah Newby, who has recently been accepted for naval training.


We heard references in our two readings today to the power of the ocean.  We are also reminded of this by the fact that today is Sea Sunday, the day when we remember and pray for all seafarers, especially any who are in particular need or distress.  And so we recall that any form of service at sea, whether military or civilian, brings us face to with forces which are far beyond any human control.  The ocean is a wonderful, exhilarating place; but it also reminds us of our human fragility.  We can use and enjoy the ocean, but we can never tame it.  In the same way, we can relate to God as individuals praying to our Creator, but we can never successfully challenge or thwart the mighty power of God, whose ways are very often not our ways.


But it is also important for us to recall today the guiding hand of God who has enabled, slowly but surely, changes and developments to be made in the role of women in the Royal Navy which have surely contributed enormously to the life of our nation as well as to the position of women in society at large.  We give thanks for all the Wrens and other women who have served in the Navy over the last hundred years.  We pray for those who are just beginning in the honourable role of serving in the Royal Navy.  And we commend to God all people, women and men, who serve in our Royal Navy today, in their responsibilities of protecting our land, guarding our national interests, and helping to maintain peace in the world.  Amen. 

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