Our Most Sacred Day

19 April 2021
Our Most Sacred Day - Featured image

This article from the Autumn 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by theologian and historian, John Moses.

That there is something undeniably religious about Anzac Day ceremonies should not surprise the attentive reader and politically aware citizen. It has to do with ‘civil’ or ‘civic’ religion—a concept used to describe solemn public events in a nation’s history. These acts of commemoration occur in all nations, regardless of their historically dominant religious culture. They may or may not be officially endorsed by the religious denominations but whether the ceremonies are held within or outside a sacred building, they are nevertheless examples of civic religion. Anzac Day is the major Australasian manifestation. Britain has Armistice Day each 11 November. In France and elsewhere on the European Continent the war dead are commemorated on All Souls’ Day, 2 November. There the link with the Christian faith is, of course, explicit. And when one attends the dawn service, for example, at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra the religious character of the ceremony is overwhelming. Padres from the mainstream churches—Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting—take turns leading the prayers and hymns are sung. Existence of a deity who is the author of the universe is acknowledged.

What is very evident at all Anzac Day ceremonies is that the citizens who attend them are united in some form of devotion, which in the first instance is to the memory of those who paid the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country. People who have lost their kinsfolk in war as well as citizens generally come out on Anzac Day to declare their solidarity with the nation. So it is a patriotic event which unites citizens beyond their different religious denominational beliefs for one day of remembrance. The mantra ‘Lest we forget’ sums it up. These words originated in a hymn composed by Rudyard Kipling in 1897 called the ‘Recessional’ and this hymn is invariably sung on Anzac Day. Of course, Kipling in that poem was not thinking of the fallen in battle but of the evanescent and temporary nature of imperial power. The full text rewards closer study, as the words ‘lest we forget’ have been creatively misappropriated to mean something different—namely the sacrifices made in the service of one’s country.

In the planning of the Day, the first Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (ADCC) in Australia was inaugurated in Brisbane at a public meeting on 10 January, 1916, in the city’s Exhibition Hall, presided over by the then state governor Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams and the Premier, T. J. Ryan. That event laid the foundation for Anzac Day as we now know it. The meeting unanimously elected Canon David John Garland as secretary because of his high profile as a very public-spirited Anglican priest in Queensland with an established reputation for getting things of national or municipal importance done with efficiency and aplomb.

The Rev. David Garland (left) with fellow Queensland Anglican Priest and First AIF military chaplain, the Rev. William Maitland Woods

The Rev. David Garland (left) with fellow Queensland Anglican Priest and First AIF military chaplain, the Rev. William Maitland Woods.
Photo: Canon Garland Memorial

The Brisbane committee was one of many throughout the Commonwealth who convened more-or-less spontaneously to establish a day of commemoration. Understandably, very soon after the news of the Gallipoli landing and its aftermath reached Australia, the press began to publish information and commentary about the significance of what was happening. This unleashed a variety of responses.

The Anzac Day committee was a striking example of early ecumenism.

The news of the fallen was received with a mixture of shock and pride, especially after the reports of the British journalist Ellis Ashmead Bartlett had been digested. Reports by Charles Bean had been delayed by Army censorship and were only released later. Paradoxically, there was sadness and jubilation. Driven by pride in the Anzac’s achievements, celebration committees were formed to mark the event. The result was that there developed a variety of forms of celebration such as sports days, concerts and other forms of public entertainment. In the Churches, on the other hand, particularly in the Church of England—where bishops and clergy were more mindful of the sacrifice of young lives in defence of the Empire—there began a series of commemorative services in all cathedrals throughout the country. The very first one recorded was a Requiem Eucharist (Mass) in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, on 10 June 1915, celebrated by the Archbishop St Clair Donaldson. The Service Register documents attendance on a Thursday morning by some 600 mourners including the State Governor as well as the consuls of France and Russia, making this a state occasion.

St John’s Cathedral Brisbane

St John’s Cathedral Brisbane, as seen reflected in a nearby highrise.
Photo: Michael Coghlan

Of all the Anglican dioceses in Australia, that of Brisbane and indeed the entire province of Queensland, consisting of five dioceses at that time, was defined by its alignment with the Anglo-Catholic or High Church branch of the Church, a tradition that had no Protestant reservations about services commemorating the dead. Canon Garland, from his status as secretary of the Brisbane ADCC, was determined to advocate his concept of commemoration throughout the Commonwealth and New Zealand. Canon Garland had already become well known in New Zealand due to leading a campaign to amend the NZ Education Act to allow Bible Study in government schools there.

Canon Garland (1864–1939) in his new role as secretary of the Queensland ADCC, since January 1916, quickly began an energetic public relations exercise to promulgate his ideas for a solemn commemoration of the fallen at Gallipoli. His campaign lasted from 1916 until 1930, during which time Canon Garland assiduously lobbied Federal and State premiers as well as municipal officials throughout Australia and New Zealand advocating the Brisbane form of solemn commemoration. Step by step, each state—following the NZ example—passed legislation establishing Anzac Day as a solemn day of commemoration. The passage of the legislation in NZ was, of course, relatively straightforward since only one government was concerned, whereas in Australia seven jurisdictions—the six States and the Commonwealth— had to be brought into line. Consequently, the achievement of relatively uniform commemoration service in each took longer.

Nevertheless, Canon Garland worked so tirelessly that he became known as the ‘Architect of Anzac Day’. What is also noteworthy is that the proposal of the date 25 April (the day of the landing) to the Brisbane ADCC came from Thomas Augustine Ryan, not to be confused with the then state Premier Thomas Joseph Ryan. T. A. Ryan was a prominent Brisbane auctioneer who had a son fighting in the Dardanelles (who thankfully survived).

The young men died defending Christian values.

A group photograph of the Brisbane ADCC in 1921 shows Church leaders clearly predominated. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops are readily recognisable seated in the front row, with Canon Garland standing on the extreme left of the picture. The other members include former chaplains from all denominations as well as army officers and municipal leaders. Given the presence of high-profile representatives of all denominations it was indeed a striking example of early ecumenism. The hitherto competing and theologically incompatible denominations are seen here collaborating in the common cause of remembrance of the fallen. Remarkable is the fact that all these churchmen as well as army personnel deferred to Canon Garland’s well-known organisational ability as well as his negotiating skills and above all to his knowledge of liturgy. This is of key importance. A leader was needed who understood how a solemn public service of commemoration should be appropriately organised and performed.

Canon David John Garland grew up in Dublin, strongly influenced by Orange-ism. Garland was a very Protestant Anglican Irishman brought up in the Orange tradition when he migrated to Queensland in 1884 and settled initially in Toowoomba, where he found work in a law firm and became a member of the Masonic Lodge. The Anglican Church he attended was St James’, then under the incumbency of one Thomas ‘Tommy’ Jones, a priest of determined Anglo-Catholic persuasion and a man of energetic entrepreneurial temperament. ‘Tommy’ Jones (as he was always known) converted the Dublin immigrant from his Orange-influenced Biblical fundamentalism to becoming a fervent, convinced and crusading Anglo-Catholic.

An Anglican tenet was to comprehend the Bible as containing all that is necessary for salvation. That was what the Church of England stood for, and under the guidance of ‘Tommy’ Jones, Garland became a vigorous champion of Catholic Anglicanism which understood itself as the progressive and dynamic element of the Church. The Church of England at that time in the Antipodean colonies was the largest Church, and also the Church of the most powerful Empire the world had ever seen. ‘Tommy’ Jones convinced the young Garland he had a vocation to the priesthood and with Jones’ guidance, Garland became a catechist—a lay teacher in the parish—and was prepared for ordination by Jones, as was the practice in the days before theological colleges. Garland was duly made deacon in Grafton in 1889 and served in country parishes in that diocese until he moved to Perth, WA, in 1892, where he was ordained priest. Garland served in the West with distinction where he proved to be a clergyman of great administrative and entrepreneurial skill, quickly gaining advancement. Garland acquired an army chaplain’s posting at the time of the Boer war when he ministered to troops encamped and training in Fremantle before embarkation to South Africa. Here Garland manifested his deep pastoral concern for recruits which he retained all his life, serving actively as he did in the Middle East on a special chaplain’s licence for almost two years from late 1917.

If this background is not understood, making sense of the Anzac ceremonial devised by Canon Garland will be difficult. Although the Gallipoli campaign inspired many models of celebration or commemoration throughout Australia, the one devised by Canon Garland in collaboration with the ADCC was finally officially adopted or adapted by all states, the Commonwealth and New Zealand. The central element in all this which drove Garland and most other chaplains who served in the AIF during the Great War was the conviction that the young men who fell in the service of the imperial cause had died defending Christian values. They were modern-day crusaders against the scourge of Prussianism. The British Empire, as many at the time were convinced, stood for genuinely Christian values against the putatively pagan values of the German Empire. And to this conviction many sermons from the Anglican hierarchy throughout the Empire bore eloquent witness. Indeed, for all the British-based churches at that time, the war was a crusade against the ruthlessness of Prussianism symbolised by the vainglorious Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Here we are challenged to understand something which the secular mind has difficulty in comprehending, namely the fact that nations are conceived of as essentially spiritual entities or at least driven by a spirit of patriotism. This does not exclude the commercial element. If nations perceive that their economic existence is threatened—or, more importantly, as in the case of imperial Germany, where their future development was obstructed—they will resort to warfare. That is the lesson of history.

The secular mind has difficulty comprehending that nations are essentially spiritual entities, driven by a spirit of patriotism.

As well, in all countries the armed forces are honoured and the fallen remembered. This universal phenomenon of solemn remembrance of the members of the national armed forces who have died in defending the nation may, of course, take different forms from country to country depending on national traditions. The German-Jewish scholar George Lachman Mosse made a perceptive analysis of this in several studies in which he pointed out that the general commemoration of the nations’ war dead is a phenomenon that became fashionable only as a consequence of the French revolutionary wars when for the first time volunteer soldiers, that is citizens, formed an army to fight for the cause of the nation, in short to secure liberty, equality and fraternity. This was a consequence of the nationalism of the masses. For the first time in history, the common man had a fatherland worth fighting for because in it he had rights in the modern sense. Prior to that armies were manned by conscripts raised by an absolute monarch of paid mercenaries. Mosse’s point was that once absolutist monarchs were disposed of and replaced by democratically elected, parliamentary governments, the character of the State changed radically. The winning of citizenship gave people for the first time a stake in their own country and its values. Of course, Napoleon Bonaparte exploited this by his Levée en masse, that is by requisitioning able- bodied men to fight in his campaigns of conquest.

There is an ongoing struggle among Australian historians and publicists to dominate the historical-political consciousness of citizens. Historiography is an on-going argument among scholars who compete in the marketplace of ideas for the hearts and minds of the reading public. As has often been said, Australia and New Zealand are free countries in which everyone is entitled to publish his or her views without fear or favour.

This means, however, that everyone has to accept critical challenges to their findings and to their philosophy of history which is pre-eminently an ideologically driven discipline. Authors are entitled to their views provided the integrity of others is not maligned. For example, it is no secret that a number of writers on the subject of Anzac commemoration are deeply hostile to the very idea. That is their perfect right, but it is suggested here that their hostility derives from an impoverished comprehension of the essentially civil religious aspect of Anzac commemoration. This means they are insufficiently aware of the Christian culture of our ancestors.

Church of England bishops in colonial and post-colonial Australia enjoyed a privileged social relationship with State and Commonwealth governors, and clergy such as Canon Garland were not shy in frequenting the ‘corridors of power’ to exert whatever influence they could for the causes they espoused. Garland was an unusually forceful and persistent personage in his day, active on behalf of many public causes, the most notable and continuing one being Anzac commemoration.

This energy derived from Garland’s perception of the State and Empire. It was widely held among church dignitaries as well as 19th century statesmen such as Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98), that the British Empire had a vocation from almighty God to plant the seeds of parliamentary democracy among the peoples of the world over which it held sway.

Religion was appropriated to justify imperialism.

For the edification of the secular mind it is necessary to explain just how seriously religion and the Bible were taken during the 19th and early 20th centuries in broad sections of the community; that is, right across the Christian denominations. This is documented by the very energetic campaigns undertaken by all non-Roman Catholic churches in Australia and New Zealand to have the Education Act in various States amended to allow Bible reading in government schools, as well as to permit clergy to enter schools weekly to conduct religious instruction for the children of their respective flocks. Indeed, the Bible in Schools movement was a phenomenon of the British Empire generally. British-based missionaries first of all regarded the fact that almighty God had allowed Britain to extend her sway throughout the world and this implied an obligation to bring the liberating message of Holy Scripture to all the peoples who lived wherever the Union Jack flew and upon which the sun never set.

This raises the interesting question about how religion was appropriated to justify imperialism. As mentioned above, all the Great Powers in the Age of Imperialism claimed that in extending their power throughout the world they were implementing the will of the Creator. Hence there occurred throughout the 19th century an explosion of missionary movements driven by the respective churches of the European nations. Each denomination established their missionary enterprises to convert the native populations under their control, a movement which was fraught with sectarian rivalry such as one could witness in microcosm. For example, in Western Samoa French Marist priests competed with London Missionary Society missionaries for the hearts and minds of Samoans. When the islands were ceded by international agreement to German control in 1900 every effort was made to replace the French RC clergy with Germans. The Kaiser had even endorsed the establishment of a Marist house in Meppen, Westphalia, to train future missionary priests. This would eventually take care of the Roman Catholic section of the population while the replacement of the personnel of the London Missionary Society with German Protestant staff proved more problematic.

In a word, it was deemed important to have missionaries who ran the schools and maintained hospitals who were loyal to the colonial power and functioning as virtual agents of that power to make the native peoples into pliant and obedient subjects in accordance with the imperial power’s cultural-political ideals. It did not matter whether the missionaries in each case perceived themselves as having been instrumentalised in the service of their political masters; the missionaries had willingly placed themselves in that role in the belief they were serving the will of God. The political culture of the imperial power was propagated willingly by the missionaries.

In the case of the self-perception of a priest like Canon Garland all clergy serving overseas were agents of the imperial power because, like Prime Minister Gladstone, they perceived the mission of the British Empire not only to spread liberal political values such as the rule of law, basic rights and freedom from oppression but also the Gospel of Christ from which they believed all these values were ultimately derived. The propagation of Bible-based Christianity went hand in hand with British political culture. Indeed, in an emphatically Whiggish manner British missionaries had claimed the Bible as the virtual handbook of Empire.

Propagating Christianity went hand in hand with British political culture.

This is where the secular historian hits the wall, although all honours students in modern history at our universities were presumably trained to try to re-experience the past by entering the mind of the protagonists in the drama which they were trying to explain. Here the historian who is unacquainted with the world of ideas of, say, an Anglican priest who was a champion of the Oxford Movement, must encounter an insurmountable difficulty. The would-be writer is automatically disqualified from even imagining that s/he could offer a plausible explanation. And of course, the problem of tooling up to enable one to enter the world of ideas of a chaplain like Canon Garland makes any attempt by the outsider illusory from the beginning. One needs a broad-based and multicultural spiritual-intellectual formation in order to be able to unravel the past in a way commensurate with the strict historiographical standards of internationally acceptable scholarship.

Finally, turning now to what may reasonably be called Canon Garland’s ‘war theology’ and its origins, two factors stand out: first, the role of the Church as the agency throughout history for propagating the Gospel (good news) of Jesus of Nazareth for sacralising the world, and second, the propagation of Biblical knowledge as the means of achieving this. The Church’s obligation was to convey its healing message to all peoples. And since the time of the apostolic Church—that is the Church in the first 100 years—it had done this first by evolving a liturgy (the Eucharist or Mass) and then by compiling the Bible, a task not completed until the early fourth century. This was the key world-changing cultural event of human history. And since the early 19th century when the British Empire had been granted, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, ‘dominion over palm and pine’ it was its duty to facilitate the proclamation of the Gospel to all peoples.

First Know Your Enemy

First Know Your Enemy: Comprehending Imperial German War Aims & Deciphering the Enigma of Kultur (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019) by John A. Moses

This article is an edited extract of the chapter, ‘Lest we Forget – Christianity and Australian Culture’, from First Know Your Enemy: Comprehending Imperial German War Aims & Deciphering the Enigma of Kultur (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019) by John A. Moses, reproduced here with the kind permissions of the author and publisher.

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