A Hymn For Anzac Day
Connections - April 29, 2007
( for overseas visitors to our site, we should explain that Anzac Day is New Zealand's Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance dedicated to the memory of our War Dead. The day is held in common with Australia )
We at Mornington were among the first to sing the new hymn, words by Shirley Murray and music by Colin Gibson. We are convinced it is a hymn with potential for wider acceptance, hopefully as a national hymn for remembrance occasions like Anzac Day. As a means of commending the hymn, and promoting some of its special features, we are reprinting Ken Russell’s CONNECTIONS article of April 29, and which includes the full script of the hymn.
The Shirley Murray/Colin Gibson Hymn for Anzac Day may yet establish a new and significant dimension for the solemn remembrance of war heroes in this country. It breaks new ground in two respects.
First, such is the dignity of both lyrics and melody it may well appeal in a wider civic setting, and as time goes by replace some of the increasingly irrelevant national hymns that have always appeared, often without question, in Anzac Day observances. In defence of these, “Eternal Father Strong to Save” and such like, the reality is that there has been little to offer in the way of contemporary hymns that could seriously expect to replace the hardy annuals. The strong first-time singing of the hymn at the civic service in the Cathedral this week, gave every encouragement that it is acutely relevant to the prevailing New Zealand mood, and is eminently singable.
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.
But second, the hymn courageously introduces a dimension of remembrance that would have offended the unquestioning obedience
approach to military service that many of us remember from the post WW II years, when pacifism was a dirty word and conscientious objection perceived as unpatriotic.
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.
There are still enough of us in the Church today with memories of that unforgettable moment in the Church Conference when the Rev Ormond Burton was reinstated as a minister in good standing after having been expelled in 1942 for his stand against the war. Ormond was a pacifist, pure and simple. Yet he had not always been so. He won the Military Medal for heroism on the battlefield, and the French Medal of Honour in WW I, but came back to New Zealand convinced of the futility and waste of war. As Minister of the Webb St Methodist Church in Wellington he preached and advocated a Christian pacifist position against the war, too close to Parliament for comfort, and was in due course interned. Even his own Methodist Church turned against him, to its shame, and others like him. Mercifully those days have gone, and the world war mood that turned the majority against the few has softened. We are markedly more independent and liberal as a country now. We do not rush into war at the first beckoning of powerful allies. And we have a Human Rights Act that protects liberty of conscience, and the right of free speech as against the archaic notion of sedition.
We have seen in the years since Vietnam, and now in Iraq, a selective dimension of objection to war that the pacifist controversy did not address. Tens of thousands of America’s young men rebelled against the draft to the appalling war in Vietnam, not because they would not fight for what they thought was right, but because they insisted on their right to make a personal decision on the morality of a particular war - a war which pretty well every mainline Church in the English-speaking world, including our own, condemned as unjust and immoral. The “love that asks no questions” is no longer enough. The “unjust war” has come of age in our lifetime.
Iraq is throwing up yet another scenario. The draft is gone, and with it the element of compulsion. But from both American and British forces in that terribly damaged land, there are frequent reports of members of the armed forces becoming so convinced of the wrong they are doing , that they are questioning the legality as well as the morality of the whole operation. Not surprisingly, in doing so they are asking huge questions of the once immutable doctrine of military discipline, and what that discipline may involve in the contemporary world. These are not cowards, but conscience-bound professionals like RAF doctor, New Zealander Malcolm Kendall Smith. There is still a high price to be paid, as his harsh dismissal, imprisonment and fining has shown. But figures I have sourced suggest the numbers are climbing rapidly into hundreds as soldiers on the ground in cities like Baghdad see for themselves what the policies of their government have visited on the civilian population, the bitter civil strife that has followed the invasion, and the degradation of the infrastructure that has followed the war. Slowly they are gathering the strength to say “No.” These are today’s successors to the well documented cases of “desertion” in WW1, shellshocked young men at Gallipoli and the Somme, driven out of their minds by the noise and brutality around them. For many, the sentence was death by firing squad, and for their loved ones, generations of shame. 90 years later, perhaps there is some comfort and reassurance that our perception of courage and integrity has moved on. They too, the ones who desert the inhuman carnage we once glorified, deserve to be remembered among the brave of war. The new Hymn for Anzac Day is for them, as well.
It was a good Anzac Day, with record attendances at dawn services around the country. It has become a unifying day of remembrance, remembering the cost. And a day that increasingly represents the emergence of a unique national identity. Until a few years ago, I for one, questioned why I should wear the poppy. Now I do so, wholeheartedly.
Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
Weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
Weep for the homes that ache with human pain,
Weep that we ever sanction war again.
Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
Held now in trust to justify the dead,
Honour their vision on this solemn day,
Peace known in freedom, peace the only way. - Shirley Murray