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After Anzac...

Taonga columnist John Bluck shares a lingering fascination with the religious nature of Anzac services.

John Bluck   |  11 May 2015

The extravaganza of Anzac remembrance has ended for the moment. But it will keep coming back at least till 2018, and who knows what will happen in 2039?

There is no danger of not remembering them. The schoolchildren who planted crosses sent from Wellington to every little school across the country will keep the Anzac legacy alive.

It has been an extraordinary outpouring of emotion in this usually nonchalant nation.

I played in a brass band at the dawn service in Warkworth, where nearly half the total population of this small north Auckland town turned out to stand silently in the early-morning darkness. Kids with grandad’s medals, together with family groups, scouts, guides, high school prefects, volunteer firefighters all mixed in with the few surviving veterans.

The later service drew only a fraction of the early assembly. There is something about making your way to a meeting in the darkness that jolts you into the terror and horror of what you are remembering.

It’s the least you can do to make the effort once a year to get up so early and share an event with strangers whose grandfathers and uncles died like yours did, or almost as bad, came home as different men, maimed and traumatised.

My lingering fascination is with the religious nature of this Anzac outpouring.

Ritual, symbol, ceremonial robes, sashes and badges of office, flags and banners, places made holy by history and sacrifice, processions, choreographed movement, the invocation of  clouds of witnesses, familiar music, prayers, sacred texts, homilies and the rhetoric of exhortation. It’s all there, reverently offered and solemnly received.

Thousands of supposedly very secular New Zealanders who have never heard of Hymns Ancient and Modern or the New Zealand Prayer Book; wearing red flowers, lapels sagging with medals, standing outside in the cold and dark, solemnly reciting  a set liturgy with versicles and responses, and singing funeral hymns and Victorian-era anthems.

If we ran church services like that we’d be laughed out of the sanctuary.

I wonder why this Anzac enterprise flourishes? You can’t explain it like they used to, by a looming threat of another war, or even a rush of patriotic blood.

You certainly can’t point to evidence of clever marketing, state-of-the-art technology, innovative music and liturgy. And the standard of preaching is pretty dismal. Whether it’s the Army or the RSA that provide background notes to speakers, they’d be helped by a course called Public Speaking 101.  

Anzac services are pretty basic affairs. They stick to old scripts, familiar templates, recognisable songs, stories, routines performed year after year.

But somehow they manage to tap into a deep hunger for shared rituals that connect us with a history we can all claim as our own, a sense of belonging undergirding all our differences, memories and stories that inspire, reaffirm and warn of horror that could so easily happen to us again.

Yes, they do speak of sacrifice and heroism and courage and qualities that we find daunting, but mostly the services don’t overload us with advice. Far more importantly, they offer a shared space, silence, sounds  and symbols that go beyond words.

They do the things a good church service can do, provided the leadership isn’t anxious to convert or correct.

Anzac reminds us what words and music, carefully arranged, confidently delivered can do when they are trusted to speak for themselves about our shared history, our common humanity, and the hopes we dare to dream about.

Bishop John Bluck lives in Pakiri, Wellsford.

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