Sermon given at the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to mark ANZAC Day 2013
25 April 2013 at 12:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
What led so many young Australians and New Zealanders to enlist for service in the First World War?
In two years’ time we shall observe the centenary of the day when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at ANZAC Cove. The centenary will be, as today, a time when people remember those who fought and died not only at Gallipoli but in the two World Wars and in other conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In view of the casualty rate and loss of life, this is a solemn commemoration. The figures of casualties cannot be precise. Perhaps 53,000 allied troops and as many as 68,000 Turkish soldiers lost their lives in that one campaign. Compared with all the casualties of the campaign, the Australian and New Zealand numbers seem small. But proportionately, the loss to Australia and especially New Zealand was higher than elsewhere. Almost 3,000 New Zealanders and 9,000 Australians lost their lives. That figure approaches one in three of the New Zealanders and Australians who fought.
These figures are almost unimaginable. The total number itself matters little: each loss of life left a family and friends grieving, left a community and nation deprived of the contribution a young and vigorous life would make to its prosperity, to its well-being. And Jesus tells us of God’s grief too. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.’
Our solemn commemoration is accompanied by a real sense of pride at the courage and heroism of so many young men from Australia and New Zealand in the first military engagement of those then-young independent nations. But I repeat the question. What led so many young Australians and New Zealanders to enlist for service?
There could be many reasons. Amongst them must be the motive for any young person who has ever travelled around the world: the thirst for exploration, the search for adventure, the need for excitement. Added to that would be a group feeling: my friends are going, so I should go along. But I dare say there was also the importance of kith and kin, loyalty to relatives in the old homeland, loyalty to the British Empire. Perhaps those young men also had a sense of belonging to a wider world, the human race, with the obligation to serve one another under God.
On her 21st birthday in 1947, The Queen, then still Princess Elizabeth, broadcast a message to the young people of the Commonwealth, which she called ‘our great imperial family, to which we all belong.’ She spoke of the beauty of belonging together. She spoke from Cape Town in South Africa. She said, ‘Everywhere [we] have travelled in these lovely lands, [we] have been taken to the heart of their people and made to feel that we are just as much at home here as if we had lived among them all our lives. That is the great privilege belonging to our place in the world-wide Commonwealth.’ The Queen also spoke of the importance of service. ‘I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service. God help me to make good my vow.’
Later this year, on 4th June, we shall celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s Coronation here in this very place. The first Coronation in Westminster Abbey was that of Harold on 6th January 1066; the next of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day that year. The Queen’s Coronation in the Abbey was the fourth of the 20th century. Every Coronation has followed the same pattern and taken place within a celebration of the Mass or Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion service. Before the moment of crowning, the Monarch is anointed by the Archbishop with holy oil and then invested with golden garments like those of a priest or bishop. This anointing is a setting apart for the service of God and His people following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose very title means ‘the anointed one.’
The idea of service as a virtue, a goal, an ideal may seem counterintuitive in a world devoted to self-fulfilment and self-satisfaction. But we see the value of it in The Queen’s 60 years and more of faithful service, her vow fulfilled. We see it too in those young people willing to enlist, knowing that their lives would be at risk: in those who gave their lives in the service of their homes, their friends, their comrades. We see it in those who enlist today, knowing that their lives will be at risk. We see it in Jesus who gave his life that we might be free to live.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.