Williamstown Uniting Church – Electra St
April 18, 2015 – ANZAC Day Service
You’ll notice on the Order of Service for today that this is a ‘reflection’, rather than a ‘sermon’. And it’s going to be a very short reflection, because in this centenary year of the landing at Gallipoli I think that ministers like me have to be very, very careful about what we say.
It’s disconcerting to look back to what people in my position, ministers in pulpits, were saying one hundred years’ ago. Clergy were among the most enthusiastic supporters for the First World War and they preached from the pulpits that it was an opportunity for spiritual renewal. When war was declared the Anglican minister at Bright, here in Victoria, announced: ‘We are British first, and Australian second … Let us then offer the best of our manhood and let us speak with our pocket in helping the Empire in its time of need.’ In late 1914 the Melbourne Church of England newspaper condemned Germans as ferocious and among the reasons it gave for this ferocity was that: ‘To some extent Germans are influenced by Martin Luther, whose lack of Christian meekness was shown in his brutal treatment of [Ulrich] Zwingli … in 1529’. Don’t worry if you can’t remember exactly what happened between the church reformers Luther and Zwingli in the sixteenth century; no matter what some Melbourne Anglicans might have thought in 1914 it played no part in the outbreak of war. This Christian enthusiasm for war continued even after the debacle at Gallipoli, even after the number of casualties was known; in late June 1915 the Australian Baptist newspaper ran an editorial encouraging the physically fit ‘to present themselves, a willing sacrifice on the altar of their Empire’s needs’.
British clergy seem to have been even more enthusiastic about war than Australians. The most frightening, perhaps, was the Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, who preached a sermon in 1915 in which he urged the British to ‘kill Germans – do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends’.
From the Anglican Bishop, it’s a relief to turn to Pope Benedict the 15th, who became Pope on the third of September, 1914, and who in November that year grieved: ‘There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine, as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognise brothers, whose Father is in Heaven?’ He urged the warring parties to negotiate.
Pope Benedict responded to the First World War in a way that most of us would now recognise as properly Christian, but he was in the minority. Churches, on all sides of the First World War, churches throughout the British Empire, in Europe, in the United States, believed that God was on their side, while their opponents were being led or misled by the devil. They saw going to war as a spiritual discipline, and those who died as martyrs. It’s in response to this that Siegfried Sassoon, whose younger brother died at Gallipoli, wrote the poem ‘They’.
“They” by Siegfried Sassoon
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
Let us never again be like Sassoon’s bishop. If churches must say anything about war, let us follow the example of Pope Benedict, rather than Bishop Winnington-Ingram. It is never, ever the role of the church to urge killing. Our role is always and ever to remember that we are all the children of the one Father in Heaven. And it is the role of clergy like me to speak very briefly, if at all. So I’ll end here. Amen.