Reflection for ANZAC Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church

ANZAC Day, 25th of April, 2021

On the 25th of April, 1915, one hundred and six years ago today, Australian, New Zealand, British, and French servicemen landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Russia, which was under attack by Turkey, had called for help from its allies, and it was also thought that attacking Turkey would protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. In November 1915 one young woman, writing to her soldier fiancé who was overseas, said: ‘Things about the Dardanelles are coming out now and it is openly acknowledged a failure. And the details of the failure are appalling.’[1] In December 1915 the invading forces withdrew. About 120,000 men had died: more than 80,000 Turkish soldiers; some 8700 Australians; and approximately 2700 New Zealanders. Controversy has raged ever since over whether the soldiers were landed in the right place and whether the invasion at Gallipoli ever had a chance. One thing is certain, whatever it is we are remembering today we are not celebrating a military victory.

This is not a sermon; it is instead a little bit of history and few thoughts about the churches’ role in making war and peace. I have never felt qualified to preach at ANZAC Day services, never having experienced war first-hand. I am also too aware of the role the churches played in the enthusiasm for war a century ago to be confident about adding in my own two-cents’ worth. When World War One was declared clergy preached in favour of it because they believed that a military victory that would lead to spiritual renewal. The Anglican minister at Bright, here in Victoria, declared that: ‘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.’[2] Christian enthusiasm continued even after the number of casualties from the debacle at Gallipoli began to be 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’.[3]

The most frightening example of Christian aggression in the English-speaking world came from the Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram. In a sermon preached in 1915 the bishop 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’.[4] There are similar examples from every nation involved in World War One. Churches saw World War One as a holy war, a new crusade.[5] When I first discovered this it puzzled me; how could churches encourage the Christians in their own country to kill and be killed by Christians in other countries? Christians have of course always been divided between those who believe that following Jesus demands absolute pacifism, which is the belief of the Quakers and other historic peace churches, and those who believe that there are times when going to war is the least worst option. But I had not thought that any Christian leader would be enthusiastic about sending people to war. The attitude of the then Pope, Benedict XV, who tried to make peace between the First World War’s combatants, made much more sense to me.

One historian, Philip Jenkins, suggests that clergy were enthusiastic about the First World War because in 1914 each country had a national church: the Church of England; the Russian Orthodox Church; the Lutheran Church. Even supposedly secular France had a special commitment to the Catholic Church. The nationalisation of churches allowed Christians to see the members of other churches as national enemies rather than fellow believers.

Australia, of course, has never had a national church. The only mention of religion in our Constitution prevents the establishment of one.[6] But Australia was part of the British Empire, the soldiers who invaded Gallipoli were part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). There may not have been a Church of Australia as there was a Church of England, but the same connection between church and state was felt by Australians. And so clergymen were able to find religious justifications for war based on the historic differences between national churches. 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 [the Reformer Ulrich] Zwingli … in 1529’.[7]

So World War One echoed the religious wars of the Reformation. In a 1915 French play, Christmas Eve, 1914, a Catholic French soldier says: ‘It’s not a saint or a bishop, it’s Our Lady herself, it’s the Mother of God-made-Man for us, who endures the violence and the fire … she’s the one who stands as the rampart and the flag against Black Luther’s dark hordes’.[8] For their part, Germans were appalled that England allowed ‘heathen Asiatics’ Hindus and Muslims from India, to fight against ‘the people of the Reformation’,[9] although that was forgotten when Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire.

Because ANZAC Day commemorates a battle from World War One I have been talking about the attitudes of the churches in that war. After that war finished nothing was ever quite the same. As people became disillusioned with the enthusiasm for war in its aftermath, they also became disillusioned with the churches that had urged men to fight. But the temptation to see church and state as intrinsically linked, and so for churches to justify the violence of the state, remained. In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr preached:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

Martin Luther King Jr, A Gift of Love, Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 63.

King said that in 1962, and we cannot pretend that it does not still happen. In 1994 Rwandan churches justified the genocide and clergy participated in the violence.[10] Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf writes of Christian and cultural commitments merging until they ‘transmute what is in fact a murder into an act of piety,’ which he says is why Serbian fighters were able to see themselves as ‘the Christian faith’s valiant defenders’ in their war against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, a war which included the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995.[11] We might be horrified at the Anglican Bishop of London urging the British in 1915 to ‘kill Germans – do kill them,’ but his heirs continue to preach.

I know that this Reflection has been gloomy, and obviously a Reflection given on ANZAC Day is never going to be particularly cheerful. But German theologian and pastor Andrea Lange writes that ‘a peace church should be a community of memories and a community in which stories are told that strengthen hope’.[12] I have spoken of some of the churches’ difficult memories; I want to end with a story to strengthen hope. It was told by a British Conscientious Objector, Thomas ‘Corder’ Catchpool, who had been imprisoned for his refusal to fight in World War One. On the afternoon of the Armistice, 11th of November 1918, he and some of the other Conscientious Objectors were in the exercise yard in their English prison. He wrote:

An airman suddenly swooped down from 3,000 feet and skimmed over our heads, waving a black arm and an oily rag. I was deeply touched by this little incident. I took it as peace overtures from the Army to us – a message of goodwill for the future, bygones bygones, all recrimination and misunderstanding, all heart-burnings over, wiped out by that kind, dirty bit of cloth.

Quoted in Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War, London: Pan Books, 2011, p. 342.

Today we remember all those affected by war; commemorate all those who were injured or killed in war; mourn with all those who lost people they loved; recognise all those who conscientiously refused to fight. We also pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. We do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings (Ephesians 2:14). The churches have not always lived up to that message of reconciliation, but let us use this ANZAC Day to again commit ourselves to be agents of it. In the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen.


[1] Quoted in Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 20.

[2] The Labour of Loss, p. 19

[3] The Labour of Loss, p. 104

[4] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War 1 Changed Religion for Ever, Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014), p. 71.

[5] The Great and Holy War, pp. 4-5.

[6] s. 116: ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

[7] The Labour of Loss, p. 50

[8] The Great and Holy War, p. 9.

[9] The Great and Holy War, p. 98.

[10] Alfred Neufeld, ‘The Power of Historiography,’ in Seeking Cultures of Peace: A Peace Church Conversation, Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2004, p. 80.

[11] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 37.

[12] Quoted in Alfred Neufeld, ‘The Power of Historiography,’ p. 92.

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