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Anzac day: a faith event?

By Alan Matheson - posted Thursday, 24 April 2008

For historians, Anzac Day, is “a martial affair with military music and ritual”, while for churches and their army chaplains, it’s a “faith event”.

Anzac Day services, asserts a Brigadier Principal Chaplain, are, “in essence faith events. Through the prayers, the acts of memorial, and the playing of bugle calls, those who are gathered are led through an encounter with acts of personal devotion and sacrifice, they are reminded of the comforting care and presence of God and they are pointed to the hope of future resurrection”.

Taking part in such a service, the Principal Air Force Chaplain said, “that the thousands of Australian men and women serving overseas were continuing the Anzac tradition by facing evil at every turn, and that it is a time to be inspired by their sacrifice and courage, so that we might play our part in seeking to confront the evil in our world”. (See "Time to ditch compulsory study of Australian history", On Line Opinion, July 4, 2007.)


There is little doubt that Anzac Day with its rituals is a powerful emotive symbol of how Australians see themselves. Bishops will pray, chaplains will parade, colours will be dusted off in cathedrals, and the church’s hymns will call on the comfort of God. The church becomes an enthusiastic supporter of what Birmingham calls “the breathless idolatry that now accompanies every Anzac Day” (“A Time for War Australia as a Military Power”, John Birmingham, Quarterly Essay, issue 20, 2005). Anzac Day services, however, raise disturbing questions about the militarisation of the church.

The church through its chaplains, increasingly, talks and acts like the military. Padres talk of “action modes”, “naval gunfire support”, “operational deployment”, and war zones are described as “unusual environments”. There will be nothing of the searing frankness of the padres of the past. Reports to denominational authorities will detail rotations, promotions of chaplains to colonels and brigadiers, and the numbers of clergy being trained by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

After the wars in the 20th century it was padres and poets who confronted the church with the brutality of the ravages of war. It was “Woodbine Willie”, Chaplain G.A. Studdert Kennedy, who wrote of the “million maggots feeding on the body”, and of the “Waste of Glory, waste of God, - War!” It was Wilfred Owen who despairingly confronted with shell shocked men, wrote:

Who are these? Why sit they here in the twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls teeth wicked?
These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.

How the church has responded to the treatment of ex-service personnel further exposes the degree to which the church has allowed itself to become an integral part of the military establishment.

The media has been relentless in exposing the shameful treatment of members and ex members of the ADF. Since last Anzac Day, its now known, that 1,200 personnel who served in East Timor have lodged post traumatic disorder claims; that thousands of Australian veterans took pills linked to symptoms of Gulf war syndrome; that at least 48 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been discharged with mental health problems; that of the 900 who served in Somalia, some 20 per cent had serious mental health concerns, and that the ADF’s alcohol and drug service was starved of funds and ignored by officers. Not a word from the churches.


The community now knows that sexual harassment and bullying was rife in the ADF; that up to 600 workers allegedly poisoned when cleaning F11 fuel tanks will sue for compensation; that there has been sexual abuse and assault in cadet units; that soldiers dressed as the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated young black recruits, and that a series of inquiries and court cases have devastatingly exposed a flawed military justice system. The church was silent.

Contrast this with what was called, “the Essendon incident”. A church minister refused to permit an Australian flag on the coffin during the funeral service for a returned soldier. All hell broke loose. Apart from the broader media, the church’s own media was awash with criticism and attack on the minister, moderators were consulted, a committee was hastily convened, and advisory note issued to all churches.

When The Bulletin, (August 23, 2005), a few months after the flag incident, ran a front cover, eight-page expose on “the shameful saga of how Australia’s military had abandoned hundreds of injured servicemen”, the silence of the church and its chaplains was deafening.

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About the Author

Alan Matheson is a retired Churches of Christ minister who worked in a migration centre in Melbourne, then the human rights program of the World Council of Churches, before returning to take responsibility for the international program of the ACTU.

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