, Knox College
Thank you for the privilege of being with you this ANZAC Day morning as the community of Knox College, Salmond College and the School of Ministry share in the commemoration of our sometimes very personal links with wars that shaped our world. Today we renew our identity across nations and generations as those who value faith, community and duty; and in the face of our memories we seek God’s Word for meaning and purpose in our own time.
Today the sounds and movements of enduring rituals, the words of new hymns and the associations of familiar music, help give voice to the mute feelings of old soldiers and new generations, that the biblical prophecy may yet come true, of an age when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war any more.
As we gather, we are aware of other conflicts today which call for sacrifices that cannot often be made in comfort, conflicts we face with others and with ourselves, violence in our homes, the theatre and horror of suicide bombings, countries were evil simmers, and near at home the easy permission we give ourselves to allow the rage that our own failure releases to become a bitter moralising.
As well as to the readings from the Psalms, from Revelation and from Jesus’ teaching; I want to bring to you the images on the back page of our order of service, and draw out links with our community here.
Psalm 91 may strike us as either reassuring or naïve – and sometimes perhaps faith is both those things. It has a powerful sense of the protection of God, of survival in battle as a sign of God’s providence. It is written out of experience’s of life in the midst of death. It can to some seem callous – I knew a secretary at the Ardmore School of Engineering where I trained who had been in France during the War and for whom the memory of people thanking God that they were not among those shot for their support of the Resistance made it difficult for her to believe. Perhaps we should note that this is not the only word in the Bible. The Bible also affirms those who in faith did lose their lives in war and conflict.
Its story is a story of God’s love in Christ both for those who suffered and those who survived. J D Salmond and his sister both of whom Salmond Hall is named after, as you will know, could speak movingly of God’s care, “that underneath are the everlasting arms” like a safety net on a construction site; but he also knew what it was to lose a brother in the Great War, at Passchendale, and some of you may have seen last night on TV1, his granddaughter Robyn Malcolm and great-grandson Charlie follow George’s experiences as a signaller in the mud and tragedy of the trenches of WWI.
The book of Revelation speaks the language of cosmic battle, and its images reflect a sense that in our earthly conflicts there are other things going on; the powerful evocative symbolism, words drenched in meanings which touch us deeply but elude our definition, of things that we don’t want to believe, but speak to truths that connect to us in alarming depth. Whatever else these promises of victory and last battle might mean, the drama and force of the vision of New Jerusalem and a new heaven and a new earth connect, not just with a romantic England troubled by industrialisation as in Blake’s poem, or with a not so green God’s own New Zealand, centuries later, but with a faith that in all the chaos of humanity, the reality of evil, and the astonishing power of good, God will have the last word.
Jesus teaching about people who seem to be the losers who are blessed, may also seem impossible – a standard we cannot reach, a work which Christians who believe in salvation by faith cannot even try to attain and perhaps shouldn’t. I don’t think so.
One of the features of the experience of war that soldiers do talk about, is what it meant to them in terms of friendship, of who you could rely on, on the qualities of life that really mattered. These were things that they discovered. Many of those qualities are here, in Jesus teaching. They are qualities tested and proved in community; communities like Knox College, Salmond Hall, and the School of Ministry. They are a gift and a promise for us to appropriate and realise.
Like others gathering today we are caught up in communities which connect the experiences, learnings and failures of War to life together today. There are those for whom the experience of War was first hand and personal, memories of waste of life and yet the call of God. Some may have served in current and recent conflicts as peacekeepers in East Timor or the Middle East. For other generations, including largely my own, the experience of War is mediated through the lives of others, fathers and grandfathers who were in Vietnam Malaya Korea, in WWII in the Pacific, in North Africa, Greece, Crete or Italy, who served in the armed forces, airforce, army, navy or merchant marine. Our mothers and grandmothers who lost brothers fathers husbands and sons; generations who have stories some of which they cannot tell and many of which they cannot forget. There are family stories which go back to the Great War to Anzac itself, to families of brothers lost one by one, leaving to others the farms, the homes, the families and the young country to which they would never return.
Our memories and links may also be to those whose faith and courage and conviction lead them to speak out against these wars and war itself, people accused of cowardice who showed a bravery of a different kind, who marched to a different drum, and who paid a sacrifice of which it is at last possible to be proud.
Of course there were many in all these events for whom participation was not a matter of conviction so much as an absence of choice. Today we remember and we honour them all.
But I want to return to those images on the order of service.
The bottom is taken from the cover of a souvenir printed in Dunedin and given to school children in NZ as a souvenir. It is also an interpretation of what that meant at the time. The person who is best to talk to us about the detail of its symbolism and flags is the Ab Epistilus, John Milne, who in his studies is already an authority on New Zealand’s involvement and history.
The tone is one of victory over an evil and the celebration of sacrifices in a just cause. From a later perspective one is sure about the evil, wishing also to honour the sacrifice, but rather less certain about the justice of the cause, and doubtful about the way in which the conflict might still properly be called a great war.
The quote from Bishop George Bell has a different perspective again.
A link with us and Bell, is that Bell was responsible for the migration to New Zealand of the German Helmut Rex, whose memorial plaque is on my right in this chapel. Helmut had trained for the ministry in the Confessing Church in Germany in 1936 to 38. His fiancé Renate had a Jewish mother and they fled separately and secretly to London where they were married in February 1939. Rex and Renate were some of a group of 90 pastors families that Bell helped migrate, but the only ones who came to NZ.
During WWI Bell was secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson. After the war he became involved with Archbishop Söderblom of Sweden and the Life and Work movement which paralleled the ecumenical streams of Faith and Order and the International Missionary Council which lead to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. He was strongly committed to church union and to inter-church relationships. He believed in the art of the possible and worked to create the instruments and documents which would make it actually possible for Christians of different traditions to function together and address the missionary needs of Christian countries like those in Europe on both sides of the War who had lost their way in social injustice, inequality, materialism and who faced new threats in the growth of communism in Russia and national socialism in Hitler’s Germany.
From 1933 Bell came in contact with the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer and became an important ally of the Confessing Church in Germany. Like Churchill Bell warned of the seriousness of the threat that Hitler presented and like Churchill was regarded as a dangerous warmonger. The International Affairs group of the Church of England was dominated by a bishop sympathetic to the regime emerging in Germany and Austria, and Bonhoeffer explained to Bell that it was perhaps difficult for Englishmen to understand the evil that was represented by Mr Hitler.
Bell acted to help some of Jewish descent at least to migrate. Bonhoeffer for a time took that opportunity himself, but returned. His is another story, but during the War he and Bell were able to meet in Sweden. Bell took back to Britain information on the opposition to Hitler and unsuccessfully pled with the British government to distinguish between the Hitler regime and the German people. Alone in the House of Lords, as a Bishop, he passionately condemned the area bombing of German civilians in Dresden and Hamburg, as undermining any possible theory of just war or tactical necessity. In 1944, it was not unconnected to his opposition to the conduct of the war that he was passed over for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bonhoeffer was hung in the last weeks of World War II sending to Bell through a fellow prisoner, “Tell him that this is for me the end, but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian Brotherhood which rises above all national hatreds and that our victory is certain.”
In Christ Church College Cathedral Oxford, Bell’s old College, in a memorial unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in 2000, are Bell’s own words:
“No nation, no church, no individual, is guiltless, without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.”
It is to that insight and to that commitment which the voices of Anzac may also be calling us.
Anzac Day Hymn, (words Shirley Murray, music Colin Gibson © 2005)
Honour the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honour our children left in foreign grave,
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers,
honour the crosses marked forever ours.
Weep for the places ravaged by our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need.
Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards in our country’s name.