Allan Davidson on Remembrance Sunday

Sun 13 Nov

Memorialisation of the war dead was a significant way for New Zealand society to cope with the impact which war has had on our country and its people. From the huge Auckland War Memorial Museum, with its two Halls of Memories, to the lonely statue of a soldier on a plinth on a back country road, to the memorial gates at a sports ground – obelisks, cenotaphs, memorial town clocks, honours boards in churches, schools and halls – we have hundreds of war memorials throughout New Zealand. The memorials, with their lists of names of those who were killed, provided some recognition for a son, brother, uncle, husband, whose body was buried in a battlefield or cemetery on the other side of the world. The annual remembrances on Anzac Day and Remembrance Sunday gave people the space to grieve publicly, as individuals and as a community, and for old soldiers it was a time to remember their mates. A great deal of that public remembrance was caught up in rhetoric that extolled sacrifice in a good cause, justified death as maintaining freedom, and promoted the exploits of war as serving the nation’s wellbeing.

As a church we are a remembering community. This building carries within it many memorials: an Honours Board listing all those who served and those killed in the First and Second World Wars, a war memorial stained glass window; and outside memorial oak and silver birch trees.

One hundred years ago there was a special sense of grief and loss in this church and throughout the whole country. In September and October 1916, 18,000 members of the New Zealand Division were involved in the Battle of the Somme. Attrition warfare resulted in what can best be called carnage or slaughter. The weather during October was described as “execrable”, with huge downpours, oceans of mud, disrupted supply lines, insufficient food. More than 2,100 New Zealanders were killed in forty-five days of fighting; hundreds more were wounded. By the end of the Battle there well in excess of one million casualties on both sides and over 300,000 killed.

The Somme impacted directly on this church. On the 25 September 1916, Private Albert Melancthon Cranwell was killed. His parents lived at 28 Orakei Road and were connected with St Luke’s. Before the war Albert was a Clerk in the New Zealand Insurance Company. He was remembered in an ‘In Memoriam’ at Auckland Grammar “as a boy of quiet, good nature and artistic temperament”. Three weeks later on Sunday 15 October 1916, Gunner William Robert Monro died of wounds received that day. He was aged twenty-two. His parents were the Rev. G.B. Monro, the minister of this church, and his wife Agnes. An obituary in the Auckland Star noted that “Gunner Monro took a keen interest in the Bible class movement, and at the time of enlistment was district secretary for the New Zealand Union”. The article concluded that “Amongst his comrades … [he] earned general admiration and respect for his kindly disposition and unswerving principles.”[1] The names of Albert Cranwell and William Monro are on the St Luke’s Honours Board. They are two names among so many New Zealanders who were killed at the Somme.

Each Sunday we hear read passages from the Bible which link us in with the wider memory and the traditions of the church. How were the ancient words from the Bible heard and understood as parents, siblings, relatives lived through war remembering their sons and brothers serving overseas and facing the prospect of injury or death? What meaning did these words take on after some of those here at St Luke’s heard that their son or brother had been killed or was wounded? People no doubt looked for comfort and reassurance, for hope and meaning, while living with anxiety and grief.

Scripture was taken and used to try and make sense of the casualty lists that appeared daily in the newspapers or the telegrams bringing the news that no parent or family wanted to receive. It’s not surprising that memorialisation and acts of remembrance figured prominently in both church and community during and after the war. People wanted to give meaning to death in war so that they could believe that their son, their family member, had not died in vain. There was very little open critique of the war and the examination of the strategies that sent soldiers by their thousands to their deaths; it was a time to weep and to remember. Ironically of course, for many returned soldiers who knew the horrors of war, their great problem was not remembering death and destruction – their problem was not being able to forget what they had seen and experienced.

As I looked over the passages set aside this year in the lectionary for Remembrance Sunday it struck me how ancient words were still being used to try and make sense of death in war by offering consolation, and hope of life to come. The words of Jesus to his disciples – ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….” (John 14.1, 2.); and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15.13) Words from Paul to the Romans, Nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.39); and words for the Thessalonians, “he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”. (2 Thessalonians, 13.14) The vision of Revelation: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….” (Revelation 21.4).

These words of reassurance and comfort about the Christian hope, of life beyond this life, had nothing directly to do in their original setting with death in war. Yet they come from passages which recur in the church’s memorialisation and remembrance of the dead. There is a difficult question as to how far the church in providing reassurance and hope in this way, helped make death in war, the violence, the carnage and the destruction acceptable. This is one of the dangers of remembrance and memorialisation – that we passively, unquestioningly accept what has happened – hold our annual commemorations and move on to the next event on our church calendar.

As we’ve been remembering the centennial of the First World War our government has invested considerable resources in developing the National War Memorial Park, Puekahu, in Wellington. Public rhetoric and the promotion of national identity around war carry with them ambiguous messages which have resulted in some healthy questioning of the myths we’ve sometimes used to justify war. We now recognise as friends, the peoples and countries New Zealanders fought against, once our enemies. This throws into sharp relief the way in which conflicts have often been generated out of obsolete political, economic and national ambitions and interests. There is growing recognition that Conscientious Objectors and Pacifists, those who opposed war, often at huge personal cost, had legitimate concerns that society needed to honour and hear.

An important part about remembering death, injury and suffering brought by war is not in celebrating past battles, great victories, or ignominious defeats. “Lest We Forget” is a mantra that should continually reminds us of the horrors brought by war. An Honours Board not only reminds us of people who died and served their country in war, but should be an ongoing reminder that war is a form of blasphemy in which human dignity is undermined, in which huge resources are misdirected to armaments, that lives are lost and people wounded physically and psychologically, that the vulnerable – women, children, the elderly are victims. We must continually guard against the danger that remembrance becomes a cult which exalts militarism and misplaced nationalism.

Out of our remembrance of death in war we need to address the violence and destruction which it has brought and support all the initiatives that work for a more peaceful, hopeful world. That begins at the personal level as we address violence in our own lives, in our homes, in our families, in our communities.

Glynn gave us some very helpful pointers to that in his sermon last Sunday, about “Standing Against Violence” and his ten theses for a “Violence-free Aotearoa NZ”. Pick up a copy of his sermon. As the slogan that appears on our new billboard puts it – “Love is not violent”. You are invited after the service to go and plant a symbolic white ribbon on the lawn at the front of the church as a declaration of your rejection of family violence. This might just seem like a small hollow symbolic action, but it speaks powerfully of an intention, a commitment, a hope for a better world.

For many this week, that better world seems further away than ever. Not only do we have the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq, but we have endured from a distance the violent rhetoric of the American election with a result that has left many stunned. For some the sky has fallen in. But the Christian way is about hope in the face of despair, light when confronted with darkness, love when faced with hate. “Love your enemies …” is Jesus call to his followers.

Two other names on our St Luke’s Honours Board symbolise for me the hopeful, loving response to the violence and destruction which they experienced in war. Their remembering was not just a looking back, but a commitment to living in ways that made a difference. I’ve spoken a number of times about Ormond Burton, who was a Bible Class boy here at St Luke’s. He served from Gallipoli to the end of the war, was injured several times and honoured for his bravery. In writing about the Somme, Burton concluded his chapter with a French quotation – “The poor children. War is sad for the mothers” and added the sentence, “And so thought broken-hearted women in New Zealand as day by day the long lists of dead and wounded showed how terrible had been the battle of the Somme.”[2] After the war Burton became a committed pacifist, a school teacher, later a Methodist minister, co-founder of the Christian Pacifist Society He was arrested and imprisoned multiple times for his pacifist protest and opposition to war and violence during the Second World War. He is now honoured as a fearless witness to the cause of peace.

Burton married Helen Tizard, who was also in the St Luke’s Bible Class. Her sister, Hilda Tizard, married another St Luke’s Bible Class boy whose name is on our Honours’ Board – William Morton Ryburn. Ryburn served at the Somme and later was sent to Mesopotamia. After the war he became a Presbyterian minister and worked for nearly forty years as a missionary educationalist in India. He was recognised for pioneering innovative educational methods – authored over sixty books and booklets and was described as “one of the ablest, most outstanding, most creative leaders, not only of the Presbyterian Church of NZ but of our country as a whole….”[3] As for his brother-in-law Ormond Burton, “Memories of the bloodshed and post-war disillusionment contributed to … [Ryburn’s] conversion to Christian pacifism. He wrote in The way of reconciliation: A study in Christian pacifism that ‘The things we had gone away to fight for, the high aims and ideals which had taken us to the war, none of these had been attained… War obviously could not be a means for achieving any purpose that was remotely Christian.’[4]

“Love is not violent”. “Love your enemies”.

As a remembering community, we are soon to break bread and share fruit from the grape. We remember the life, death and new life brought by Jesus. Out of despair comes hope. Out of death comes new life. We remember in order to be renewed, reinvigorated to live the way of Jesus in our world.

Love for others, love for our world, is active remembering in practice.

[1] Auckland Star, 25 October, p.6.

[2] O.E. Burton, The Silent Division, 1935, p.180.

[3] “RYBURN, Rev William Morton, O.B.E., M.A., D.Litt.,

[4] The way of reconciliation : A study in Christian pacifism, Auckland 1967, p.3.…