In 1999, Margaret and I went in search of two great uncles who were killed in the First World War. The journey to find the memorial where my great uncle is named led us to Messines or Mesen in Belgium. It was a strange feeling driving into the village and seeing the sign – “Mesen twined with Featherston, New Zealand!”
The Catholic Church in Messines dominates the skyline. Like every building in the village it was rebuilt after the War. The church tower has a 58 bell Carillion dedicated to Peace. One of the bells was given by New Zealand. During our visit Margaret was invited by the guide to play the Carillion. The only sheet music they had with which she was familiar, was “God defend New Zealand”. And so this tune, so well-known to us, sounded out over the village, close to where my great uncle was killed on 8 June 1917.
There are many things about our second national anthem, (“God Save the Queen” is still our first), which are anachronistic! God is called upon nine times in four verses to “defend New Zealand”, “our free land”. In our secular age, with a society which is becoming increasingly diverse, appealing to God is beyond its use-by-date. The recent debate over the prayer used to open daily sessions of Parliament shows the changing attitudes towards the use of God language and references to Jesus.
“God defend New Zealand” reflects its nineteenth century origins. Its author, Thomas Bracken, had a colourful life. Brought up a Catholic, he drifted into Protestantism, becoming a member and one-time Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge. But he retained sympathies with the Catholic Church and friendship with its great New Zealand advocate, the Catholic bishop of Dunedin, Patrick Moran. Bracken’s career as a journalist, newspaper editor, poet, and Member of Parliament, was blighted by his problems with alcohol and finances.
In 1876 Bracken wrote “God defend New Zealand”. He was a great promoter for the anthem’s use and was described in 1884 by the Mayor of Auckland, as teaching “us to love New Zealand”. As a newspaper editor, Bracken arranged the competition for an appropriate tune; John Joseph Woods’ melody was the winner.
It wasn’t until 1977 that “God defend New Zealand” officially became our second national anthem. One of the contributory forces leading to this was the pressure brought by people who wanted to see New Zealand’s identity acknowledged at national and international events and ceremonies. The unofficial use of it at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when the rowing eight won the gold medal, gave this cause a great boost.
Our national anthem is in the format of a Christian hymn. There are occasional media debates about whether it should be replaced – its God language is seen as inappropriate by some; its tune was criticised as “mushy”, and as “little more than an artificial pot-pourri of all the clichés from Victorian hymns”. And yet, as our flag referendum revealed, finding consensus on what to replace it with might be more difficult than staying with what we have! Max Cryer, with tongue in cheek, wrote that “In today’s climate the new lyrics would probably need to be drawn up by a committee, with representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the Maori Congress, Greenpeace, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.”
As we approach the annual commemoration of Waitangi Day and the 178th anniversary of the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi, thoughts of national identity – who are we as a country – come to the fore. Bracken’s anthem, when it’s interpreted as expressing aspirations about the kind of country we want to be, contains ideas, which despite their Victorian, imperialist wording, can appeal to modern ideals. While it’s God who is petitioned throughout the anthem to answer the country’s shopping list for blessings, if we are responsible for answering our own prayers, these requests take on new meaning.
Singing “in the bonds of love we meet” expresses a desire for harmony as a nation. This does seem somewhat ironical before a rugby game, when it’s followed by a haka and the physical combat where our team tries to defeat its opposition.
Being guarded from “strife and war” are sentiments which the whole world should aim at! Yes, it’s idealistic, but the desire for “peace” mentioned in the third verse is something which from the United Nations down we should continually be working for.
The second verse is particularly relevant to contemporary New Zealand in ways that Bracken couldn’t have anticipated. In world terms, our country is one of the most diverse: culturally, ethnically, and in its religious diversity. Bracken’s appeal to “every creed and race” gathering and asking for a blessing on the free land in which we live is an aspiration which the Human Rights Commission endorses through its Diversity Action Programme and Statement on Religious Diversity.
The foundation for this approach was laid on the 6 February 1840 when the first signatures were appended to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Bishop Pompallier’s request that Catholics should share the same religious tolerance as other denominations was put into words by Henry Williams. What’s notable, is the way in which these words recognised the three denominations active in the country in 1840: – Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics – and then significantly added, “Maori custom and religion”. This declaration is not officially part of the Treaty and is often called the fourth article. Religious toleration is part of our birthright as a nation.
The Israelites expressed their national identity in terms of the covenant which God had entered into with them. As it’s expressed in our Deuteronomy reading, it’s all about living in the way of love and caring for the most vulnerable members of society. People are to fear the Lord, walking in his ways, loving and serving God with all their heart and soul.
You can’t force people to love – this is something which is an aspiration, an ambition, a goal, a target. The God the Israelites are to respond to in love, is described as impartial, one who cannot be bribed, “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing”. (10.17-18) God’s justice and love are to be reciprocated by the people in the way they care for vulnerable people in their society: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. (10.19)
Working out how to care for the most vulnerable in our society today is much more complex than an injunction to loving strangers. But this is where we come back to aspirations and ideals which can inspire us. For all its weaknesses, our national anthem does point towards principles which transcend individualistic self-aggrandizement, or the selfish pursuit of sectarian advantage. In making our country “good and great” there is an appeal to be guarded from “dissension, envy, hate and corruption”. As I’ve already indicated, while these are petitions to “God to defend New Zealand” from these things, prayer involves actively working for the things for which we pray.
The violent death of Hashem Slaimankhel in the bombing in Kabul during the last week brought home the great loss to our society of this tireless worker for peace and justice. A onetime refugee, in Deuteronomy’s terms, a stranger, he was described as being “known for his humility, generosity, caring nature and selflessness in caring for others. Slaimankhel was a passionate advocate and campaigner for social justice and the rights of women and children.... He would help anyone regardless of their culture or religion.” Margaret, who worked with Hashem, described as gentle and wise. Some of you who visited the Ponsonby Mosque, where he was one of their leaders, might recall meeting him. Hashem embodied in action the aspirations and ideals which Bracken looked to God to supply.
In our Ephesians reading we have the author appealing for unity between Jews and Gentiles. Their unity is founded in their common allegiance to Jesus Christ. Jesus is described as “our peace”, who “has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”. (2.14)
We live in a world in which physical walls divide. The wall dividing Israel and Palestine is the perhaps the greatest example of this. President Trump wants to build his wall between the United States and Mexico. While the wall referred to in Ephesians is a spiritual, religious, cultural wall between Jews and Gentiles, our society suffers from these kinds of divides. That’s where the 1840 expression of religious toleration, in what’s often called the unofficial fourth article of the Treaty of Waitangi, provides a pointer towards embracing diversity. While our society as whole does not look to Jesus Christ to provide unity for our nation, Ephesians does remind us of the walls which we erect between people within and between denominations. These walls have a bearing on our willingness to cooperate with those who are different from us.
Bracken’s anthem includes language which is jingoistic, appealing for the protection of “our country’s spotless name”, crowning “her with immortal fame”. Some of the words are archaic; some are not readily understood. There’s been much debate as to what Bracken meant by the “triple star” in “Guard Pacific’s triple star”.
There is a larger question also, as to how far national anthems and countries’ flags are redundant? How far do national anthems express patriotic jingoism that lose sight of the fact that we live on one planet, are all genetically inter-related, and that humanity as a species depends for its future on its ability to cooperate and live peaceably together?
One of the lasting impacts of our visit to Messines and other war cemeteries was our deepened awareness of the senseless wastage of human life brought about by war. Margaret and I felt rather conflicted as she played “God defend New Zealand’ at St Nicholas Church at Messines. Our great uncles had come from the ends of the earth and been killed in a conflict in which Christian nations, as they then described themselves, fought each other. God was appealed to by both sides of the conflict.
Bracken’s anthem, like so many of our older hymns, reflects the world in which it was written. I have also come to appreciate, however, that if we as a society and country aspire to owning some of the sentiments Bracken expressed, and make them our prayer through our actions, we will be a better people, for that. Rather than “preaching love and truth to man”, as the last verse expresses it, – what does it mean if we seek to live love and truth in our relationships, with each other and show these in contributing to a caring community and country? These are aspirations deeply embedded in the way of Jesus which we seek to follow.
 Featherston was the large military camp during the First World War where many soldiers trained before marching over the Rimutaka Ranges to Trentham and their final departure for Europe.
 During the battle which destroyed the village, St Nicholas Church was used as the German headquarters. One Corporal Adolf Hitler was treated for wounds in its crypt!
 While the Speaker’s Maori version retains the reference to God and reinstates reference to the Queen, Jesus Christ and the maintenance of “true religion” have been dropped.
 Max Cryer, Hear Our Voices, We Entreat: The Extraordinary Story of New Zealand’s National Anthem, Auckland: Exisle, 2004, p.46,
 The Maori version was provided by T.H. Smith and appeared in 1878. This is not a direct translation of the English text as you can see by looking at the translation on your order of service.
 Ibid., pp.83-84.
 Ibid., p.83
 This 1840 declaration was only eleven years after the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act which resulted in Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom, which included the right of Irish Catholics to have representatives in Parliament.
 Deuteronomy, in contrast to the book of Exodus, is described as: not a book of laws; “it is a book of the heart, instruction (Heb: torah) in how to live intentionally as God’s people in response to His love and mercy”. Dennis Bratcher, The Book of Deuteronomy: Introduction and Overview, http://www.crivoice.org/books/deuteronomy.html
 “New Zealander killed in Kabul, Afghanistan Taliban bomb attack 'generous and passionate'”, New Zealand Herald, 28 January 2018, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11983595