Anglicans, ANZAC and the nation

Jun 10, 2022
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Image: Pxhere

There has been a change in the way we understand the ANZAC tradition. Since 1945, the literature on ANZAC has led us to think of its ‘classical’ and ‘stoic’ sources as a ‘secular’ national religion. Darren Mitchell’s important Sydney University PhD Thesis ‘Anzac Rituals’ (2020) more reasonably demonstrates its British imperial religious ethos.

He first grounds the classical ‘resort’ in the work of three Australians and their interactions in the Greek islands in the mid-1950s.

One was George Johnston, whose autobiographical novel My Brother Jack (1964) revived the legacy of World War One. Alan Moorehead, with whom Johnston travelled through the Greek Islands, and whose writings – his 1955 New Yorker Article on Gallipoli’s shared geography with Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, and his 1956 book Gallipoli – were infused with classical allusions. The third figure was Sidney Nolan. He had been with the other two in the Greek islands, and his series of Gallipoli paintings provided the image of a light horseman for the cover of Johnston’s novel.

Mitchell’s Introduction quotes Johnston on how Nolan’s poetic imagination fused ANZAC with ‘that much more ancient myth of Homer’s stories … into a single poetic truth lying, as the true myth should, outside time.’

What does this mean? My sense is the ‘resort’ to a paradoxical cultural move those artists felt impelled to make in the shock of the Japanese thrust south in 1942-1945: their urgent quest to find a permanent foundation for the Australian nation. And grounded in timeless myth, they seemed to have one.

Yet what they had was a nation they imagined to be sovereign, but that understood its permanence as being cradled within the pagan, pre-Christian Greek and Roman culture system of western civilisation that had remained also for some centuries a key measure of the British understanding of the British empire itself. Think only of Kipling who pursued the classical pagan ethos in his highly influential writings in British India. The problem for Johnston, Moorehead, and Nolan in relation to the nation was that their paradoxical approach to pagan myths involved them in a political double think.

They were Australian imperial intellectuals who imagined the nation’s permanent foundation by representing the colonial as distinct from independent version of it within the British empire. Think only of how the work of all three embedded their ideas of Australia in the experience of the AIF at Gallipoli.

Likewise, then, Mitchell’s shows that Australian historians, notably Geoffrey Serle, Ken Inglis, and Bill Gammage did as those creative people had done: disguise a late imperial view of the creation of ANZAC in a narrative of pagan secular nationalism, which attempted to dismiss Christian values both in the wartime nation and in the creation of ANZAC Day.

Mitchell directs our attention to the post-1945 ‘scholarly consensus’ on the subject.

He quotes Serle, The Creative Spirit in Australia (originally 1973): ‘the churches had little to offer in terms of high culture and relatively little intellectually.’ He notes further how the influential writings of Inglis from the 1960s and culminating in Sacred Places (1998) and Gammage, The Broken Years (1975), emphasise the principal role of veterans and government in creating ANZAC Day and forging it in the ‘classical’, ‘secular’ tradition.

Yet in 1900, almost all Australians believed in God, fifty percent of those were Anglican, twenty five percent Catholic. And Mitchell adds: ‘Christianity was deeply embedded in Australian settler culture.’

He thus positions his work to redress the irreligious bias in our histories by sensibly observing that when Australians were struck by the overwhelming shock of the war in 1914-1918, they fell back on ‘traditional practices of mourning’. As in other places, including Europe, such recourse involved use of ‘Christian language and symbols, modes of religious expression that … made sense and were believed by many to be efficacious.’

Mitchell’s superb historical study centres the work of Archbishop John Wright and Dean Albert Talbot, a Gallipoli veteran, at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney in ‘the making of Anzac Day’ in 1916. (The Dawn Service followed in 1928.) Far from heroic claims that Brisbane and other places and people in them cradled ANZAC Day, we see how those Sydney clerics worked with government and veterans in triumvirate to establish ‘mourning rites at the core of the ANZAC repertory.’

There is much in the thesis about wreaths, silence, and the dawn. Also, in relation to memorialisation, the lost Christian significance is extracted from inscriptions and other memorial forms that have been overlaid by Inglis and others with classical mis-readings.

To return to the crucial ANZAC repertory of Wright and Talbot. The solemn morning observance of ANZAC Day was infused with the Christian idea of Easter sacrifice; the resurrection suggested the good fellowship and revelry that followed in the second half of the day. Altogether, in Mitchell’s words, ‘grief and hope were unified in the future of the nation’, on a day of remembrance that almost auto-established itself in the national calendar.

Staged for ANZAC remembrance by everyone, indeed, the Christian, particularly Anglican nature of ANZAC ritual, then raises its political significance for the nation.

Mitchell comments that Sydney’s Anglican Diocese has its foundations in ‘British empire civic Protestantism’. During the war, he tells us that both Wright and Talbot prayed: ‘O God give our Empire victory.’ Much else in the thesis further reminds us that, as Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder put it in The Fountain of Public Prosperity (2018), Anglican evangelicals in Australia ‘operated a spiritual empire in parallel with the British Empire.’

But if that was, as it seems, the historical reality, such a parallel is hardly satisfactory today. Neither was it ever unchallenged, as other Anglican historians, confirmed with Mitchell at the March 2022 Evangelical History Conference on ‘Nation-Building’.

Sarah Irving-Stonebraker’s fascinating keynote address dealt with an Anglican argument around 1927 on ‘The Religious Liberty of Indigenous Australians’. The argument was that Aboriginals had a ‘human right’ to possess sacred objects. Because such a ‘human right’ was seen to exist beyond Crown property rights, an opportunity follows, I suspect, for further contemplation of nothing less than a ‘human rights’ foundation for Australian property, including land rights and, on that basis, for a sovereign Australian nation itself.

In a fine paper on debates about ‘The secret of England’s greatness’ within the Bible Society in Australia, Michael Gladwin raised the ‘contested nature of discussions of The Bible, the nation, and the empire’ in the later 1800s. He also raised ‘race’, ‘racism’ and the ‘religion of whiteness’.

Mitchell, who spoke on Talbot’s role in securing ‘Australia’s National Day’ in the 1920s, had already given us inklings in his thesis of how Wright had been thinking before the war that a new nation would ‘prove that we now have the power under God to go forth ourselves’. Wright’s nascent notion of what Mitchell calls ‘national independence’ was then reinforced by Talbot. In 1919, when King George V proposed that Armistice Day become the empire’s day of wartime commemoration, Talbot maintained the salience of ANZAC Day in Australian culture.

As for those churchmen, however, others contesting aspects of the empire remained bound by the power of its metanarrative. Gladwin says that evangelicals in the 1800s were at once ‘advocates for imperial expansion and progress’ and ‘for indigenous peoples who were being devastated by that expansion.’

On the white settler side of that nightmare, Mitchell’s study further leaves us in no doubt that the making of ANZAC Day embodied the colonial nation’s reflexive participation in a British imperial war.

Those who proposed the pretend independence of the post-1945 secular nationalist narrative of ANZAC were not then the only ones that white Australian history trapped in a political double think; the Anglican clergy, who shaped the ‘National Day’, were trapped in its imperial religious significance too.

The key point is that historians are now acknowledging the embedded political hypocrisy. By recovering the Anglican and, in parallel, British imperial foundations for ANZAC Day from the secular nationalists, Mitchell’s work confronts us in the fundamental arena of values both spiritual and strategic with the much deferred need to decolonise the nation.

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