Would secular ANZAC Day Services be more inclusive and in the true spirit of digger mateship?

Chrys Stevenson asks if religious ANZAC Day services are against the very ethos of irreligious inclusive digger spirit.

By Chrys Stevenson

It was a cool, misty morning in April 2016 when I attended my first (and last) Dawn Service. The temperature hovered at around 10°C in our little mountain village but, by the time the local Pentecostal pastor finished his sermon, I had such a head of steam up I might have spent the morning in the sauna of a 1916 Mark I tank.

I was appalled. The pastor’s deeply religious homily seemed obscenely disconnected from the irreverent, larrikin soldiers it pretended to revere. To add insult to injury, the sermon was peppered with the kind of right-wing, nationalistic dog-whistling you’d expect to hear at a One Nation rally; this was exploitation, not commemoration.

In Australian culture, the Anzacs have been deified. If those rat-bag, knock-about, church-parade-avoiding diggers could see how they are remembered today, the air would turn blue. Australian anthropologist, Bruce Kapferer, describes the Anzacs as “irreligious virtually by intention.” Similarly, professor of folklore at Curtin University, Graham Seal, insists:

“… the expression and observance of religious belief was discouraged within digger culture.”

It’s true that, if you were at Gallipoli, you might have heard the sweet strains of a Christian hymn floating up from the trenches. But, if you listened closely, the lyrics of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” were being sung as:

“No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass.
You can tell the sergeant-major to stick his passes up his arse.”

That’s not to say, of course, that the Anzacs were all atheists. Indeed, most were at least nominal Christians and I’m sure many were devout. But, most historians agree that the ethos of the Anzacs — the overarching culture — was overwhelmingly irreligious. It is claimed that some soldiers found their faith on the battlefield. But, even if they entered the war with some degree of belief, many found it literally blown out of them when faced with the grim reality of war.

This is graphically illustrated in the poem, “Church Parade — Anzac, May 3rd, 1915”, by Anzac poet, Leon Gellert. In a chilling concluding stanza, Gellert parenthetically contrasts the thoughts of his comrades with the padre’s conviction that their mates have been gloriously raised to heaven.

‘He giveth mercy for the taking

And the blessed Day is due,

With a brighter morning breaking

Lovelier than ye ever knew.’

(‘Nobby Clarke’ll take some wakin’, So will Toby Mason, too’!)

At Gallipoli and elsewhere, chaplains were mostly derided as being “Cook’s tourists”. The exceptions won the respect of the troops, not by being pious, but by being spectacular human beings. For example, Salvation Army chaplain, William McKenzie was idolised by the troops, with one soldier describing him as:

“… a big, burly fellow, and without a bit of nonsense in him! Some of the stunts he did would make your hair stand on your head.”

Refusing to stay behind when soldiers were directed to storm the Turkish trenches, McKenzie reputedly said:

“Boys, I’ve preached to you and I’ve prayed with you, and do you think I’m afraid to die with you? I’d be ashamed of myself to funk it when you are up against it here.”

But the reality of much-loved chaplains and religious soldiers does not negate the claim that the overall ethos of the Anzacs was irreligious.

As soon as World War I ended, Protestant churches worked with unseemly haste to colonise Anzac Day commemorations. But, reluctant to glorify the conflict in any way as a ‘Holy War’ the Catholic Church held back. As a result, Protestant-run Dawn Services filled the void, causing a sectarian divide. At that time, Catholics were not permitted to attend religious ceremonies outside their faith so they were, effectively, excluded from the Dawn Service.

Soon, the diggers started fighting back. In Barcaldine in 1927, soldiers told the local RSL they would boycott any religious ceremony. Ultimately, the town council and the RSL capitulated and handed the whole kit and caboodle over to the diggers. Throughout Australia, the Australian newspaper archive records various attempts to excise religion from Anzac Day. In rare instances, local clergy even conceded that having a secular ceremony was the only way to be inclusive.

Today, the extent to which religion and religious-right politics feature in Dawn Services might vary. But Dr Michael Gladwin from Charles Sturt University’s School of Theology, concedes that:

“… despite changes in the religious complexion of Australian society since the 1960s, Anzac Day services retain a significant Christian component in terms of their substance, hymns and liturgical shape.”

Now, with at least one in three Australians claiming to follow “no religion”, surely it’s time to rethink our Anzac ‘tradition’ and hold secular Dawn Commemoration Ceremonies instead. Of course, churches could still hold services for those who follow their faith. But, in a spirit of true mateship, and if we truly want to honour the Anzac ethos, it’s time to embrace a more inclusive tradition.

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