New Zealand’s biggest church service: ANZAC Day

23 April, 2014 — 12 Comments

It’s ANZAC Day this week. In New Zealand ANZAC Day has the biggest church service this country has each year. The irony is that most New Zealand churchgoers probably don’t attend.


ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and 25 April is a day for remembering. On this day services happen simultaneously throughout Aotearoa that greet the new dawn. I call this a ‘church service’ because most of the components of a church service happen as the people gather to remember the multifaceted dimensions that ANZAC Day now has attached to it. In this post I give my review of a recent ANZAC Day service I attended, and why churches should find ways to engage with this day:

In 2010 I attended the last dawn service held outside the Anglican Cathedral in the square in central Christchurch (the cathedral was destroyed by earthquakes the following February), there were approximately 10,000 people at the service.

Dawn services and church service components

There was a call to worship, Christian songs were sung together (not particularly well, but sung nonetheless), prayers were prayed (with obvious depth of thought, compassion, and understanding from the ‘clergy’), thoughts were offered for pondering, and the benediction was offered over the people with Christian warmth and friendship.

If I was to critique the service, I would note that some of the songs chosen weren’t very well known and there weren’t enough song-sheets, and looking at the official church representatives it could have been 1910 not 2010.

It was moving, emotionally manipulative at times, cold (temperature wise), and God-connecting for those who were looking, and maybe even for those who weren’t.

When ANZAC Day is on a Sunday (it was in 2010)

Being on a Sunday in 2010, my own church gathered 4 hours later for our normal church service. Our service was focused around ANZAC Day, with an attempt to acknowledge the tension already present in our place at times throughout the last century: between those who went to war, and those that stood against it.

In 2010 we still had with us each week retired service people as well as registered conscientious objectors. In 2010 one of our younger people was serving in Afghanistan, and some of our younger people regularly protest against injustices in the world.

In our ANZAC Day focused church service we didn’t honour war and fighting

We tried to respect the historical choices made, the people who served God and country (however they expressed this), and above all the image of sacrifice Jesus can provide for all humanity, a story familiar to many churchgoers.

Most churches in our country struggle to engage with New Zealand society and culture, in fact we’re failing at this. ANZAC Day is something of a national gift in the annual cycle we follow: Lent, Easter, ANZAC Day, Pentecost…

It’s not the time to be singing Onward Christian Soldiers

It’s also not the time to be ignoring one of the only (and growing) times our nation publically faces head-on, issues that provoke wonder, aw, shock, pride, disappointment, loss, and maybe a bit of spirituality, even Christian spirituality.

The Dawn Service I went to had about 10,000 people at it. I can imagine that number doubling if all the churchgoers in my town turned up too, apparently there are approximately 15,000 regular churchgoers in Christchurch. All of us turning up would certainly improve the singing!

It might be an idea to ask the city council for the song selection beforehand so we can have a run through at church the week before. I’d also like to see the song words listed on a website so smartphone users have them at their fingertips rather than relying on getting one of the sparse paper song-sheets.


We (the church) should always be looking for authentic ways to connect with a society that is increasingly moving on from Christian things. The Christian expression at the Dawn Service I went to, while fully present, still left a lot to be desired, and my church doesn’t do anything in our plot at the moment to justify being asked to contribute – I hope that will be different one day.

I would like to encourage churches to engage with ANZAC Day with respect and intelligence.

Everyone wears a poppy

The red poppy flower also known as the remembrance poppy is a symbol that has been used to remember those who died in wars since the 1920s. In the week or so leading up to ANZAC Day people wear a red poppy to show their remembrance and respect. Buying these poppies is also a fund raiser for the Returned Services’ Association, and the manufacturing of the poppies used to provide work for the IHC until being recently sourced from China.

In 2010 I put a red poppy on the church billboard as a way to show that this one particular church in the city was also ‘wearing a poppy’ for the same reasons any individual person might wear one. I did this because I thought it was a simple and clear way to show a normal connection between the church and a significant societal event. No words were needed. Some of our neighbours appreciated it enough to tell me.

A white poppy

My plan for the following year was to make an identical billboard but with a white poppy, to show that this particular church also supported other ideals. The white poppy was introduced by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933 as a symbol of peace.

One idea with the billboard was to change it every alternate day between the red and white poppy. I was a bit sidetracked in 2011 by earthquake issues and I haven’t yet produced the white poppy billboard – maybe next year.

What ideas do you have?

I’m interested to hear how your church engages with ANZAC Day (or other wartime remembrance events), or any ideas you might have – please share them in the comments below…

Image: Red poppy on the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church Madras Street billboard, Mike Crudge.

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  • not a wild hera

    Thanks for this, Mike. You articulate the tensions so well. Looking forward to hearing everyone’s ideas (so I can steal them) :)

  • Pingback: ANZAC Day | Sacraparental()

  • not a wild hera

    Here’s my round-up of things other people say…

  • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

    Steal this one !It’s remarkable the number of soldiers through history that have become Christian. From Tertullian to Ignatius of Loyola to Keith Elliot VC to Bernie Diamot who served for 10 years as an officer in the Australian army and now has a regular God spot on Radio Rhema. There are three reasons for this I think. One is the pastoral component to soldiering, one is that there is a lot of Biblical imagery that is military – the original picture of Israel is as a wandering troop whose commanding officer dwells in a tent under guard (consider the modern military firebase), and the third and probably decisive element are the insurmountable moral problems that war
    presents which exhaust and defy resolution and have driven many as I say to find ultimate refuge in Christ.

    • You outline three interesting points here.
      Personally I find the military imagery in the New Testament problematic, but I can see, as you say, how it could be a connecting thing for those in the defines forces – I had never thought of that.

      • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

        I think you’re right Mike about the prayer, automatically including people in things without their permission causes them to feel disgruntled and secluded at best. Some nuance would be considerate.

  • This morning I attended the ANZAC Day dawn service at 6.15am at Cramner Square in Christchurch. It was a cloudy morning, but there was a clearing on the horizon in the east that allowed the brightness of the sun to be seen for about 5 minutes as it rose making the clouds bright orange. This was a great backdrop to the service playing our before us all.

    My biggest critique, and the thing that has bothered me all day, are the words used by a member of the ‘clergy’ in a prayer that he prayed on our behalf (he asked us all to “bow our heads in prayer”). His words and phrases were constructed in ways that made the assumption everyone present believed in God as Creator of the world and saviour of us all. There was no empathy at all shown for anyone present that might think things Christian are a load of rubbish. I think about 50% of New Zealanders acknowledge some sort of belief in God, and about 15% actually attend church regularly. I would have hoped that such a public prayer would be done in a way that was sympathetic to that reality. But instead I think this morning’s prayer, for those not on the ‘inside’ of church, would have resulted in placing God in the context of fairy tales, and done very little to create intrigue or wonder in those who do not ‘believe’. What a missed opportunity!

    Afterwards I enjoyed seeing and catching up with some people I know. And in some settings, nothing beats a good brass band!

    Did you go to an ANZAC Day service? What was it like?

    • Andrew Baldwin

      Hi MIke, Sorry slightly on a tangent to ANZAC Day, but I was interested in your comments about the public prayer. Next week, as part of my role as police chaplain I will be conducting a short memorial service for the police office killed in the Napier siege 5 years ago. I am conscious of trying to pray something that keeps integrity with my Christian beliefs yet is meaningful for the majority of police who will be present whose belief in God is probably vague at best.Any ideas? What would you pray in this situation?

      • Hi Andrew. This is a great opportunity you have, and one that I’m sure you will do well since you are thinking about it in this way.

        It’s not so much what would I pray in this situation – as the content will be whatever is authentic to you and the ‘position’ you are being asked to pray within, eg, there is probably an expectation that a police chaplain is Christian especially knowing that you are also a church minister.

        I think this is more about how you pray – the words you use and how you use them, and how they might gently invite listeners in, or help them at least appreciate your sentiment (such as asking God to bring comfort to families – I don’t think anyone would disagree that if a family can receive comfort that is a good thing. Also where and how God may bring that comfort, such as in the form of family, friends, people in the community with compassion etc.)

        Here’s an example of a different context but one that I think requires a similar thought process, although with much less expectations!: When I’m out at meals for various occasions, I often get asked to say grace before the meal – being a church minister, if there are church people running the event they tend to assume I’d be the logical or ‘best’ person to pray in that context. I’m fine with it, but actually think others can pray just as well – or better!

        Recently I was at a birthday party for a friend who had lots of other friends present who are not part of the church or Christian. I was asked to say grace before the meal. I started the prayer along these lines: “One part of Christian tradition is to pause at this time before we eat, to thank God for what has been provided for us… ”

        In this context along with thanking God for the food and for provision, I might also make mention of contexts beyond ours where people don’t have such provision… and perhaps how this life and story of Jesus that we believe shows us how we can be part of providing for others…

        In praying this way I’m trying to acknowledge that there are people present for whom this isn’t something they do, and may not understand or know the reason why Christians do it, or just think it’s silly. I’m trying to be a little bit educational, I’m trying to take the God-as-magician away (God has provided for us, but not for those in poverty?!) by showing there are expected actions to our faith (we have a response to those who lack provision and it’s not about God magic-ing a solution…), trying to remove any sense of superstition, and also realising, or being confident that the act of prayer itself involves mystery…

        I’d be keen to see any of your own thought process or words you use in your occasion next week.

        • Andrew Baldwin

          Thanks Mike. I really wrestled with this one this year for some reason. I
          wanted to acknowledge that for many of those there they face the
          reality of everyday potentially heading into a situation where they
          could be in harms way. So I wanted to somehow point them to God as a
          source of hope and confidence in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

          I had thought about using Psalm 121 but actually it raises some interesting questions about where God might have been on that day 5 years ago – it didn’t seem like the place to enter into a long presentation of the reasons for suffering and how God’s sovereignty and justice work in a broken and rebellious world.

          So, although not altogether satisfied with it, I settled on Psalm 61 as my reading, as it emphasises God as the one who hears us when we call out to him, and provides a place of refuge for us, (The Message version also has some
          subtle police imagery “safe house” “lookouts” which was kinda nice. The king reference probably sounded a bit weird but I hoped people would just sort of gloss over that).

          So for better or worse this is what I came up with..


          It is times like this that we are reminded just how fragile life can be, that none of us know what tomorrow may bring, and while that could cause us to shrink back in fear of the unknown, it can also motivate us to step out, to honour those who have gone before us by doing our best to live each day as if it really mattered.

          The bible paints a picture for us of a God who is constant in his goodness towards us in all the changing circumstances of our lives, the one who hears us when we call to him in times of distress, and whose presence can provide a secure footing in the ever changing conditions of our world.

          One writer describes it like this

          Reading – Psalm 61 (Message)

          1-2 God, listen to me shout, bend
          an ear to my prayer.
          When I’m far from anywhere,
          down to my last gasp,
          I call out, “Guide me up
          High Rock Mountain!”

          3-5 You’ve always given me breathing room,
          a place to get away from it all,
          A lifetime pass to your safe-house,
          an open invitation as your guest.
          You’ve always taken me seriously, God,
          made me welcome among those who know and love you.

          6-8 Let the days of the king add up
          to years and years of good rule.
          Set his throne in the full light of God;
          post Steady Love and Good Faith as lookouts,
          And I’ll be the poet who sings your glory—
          and live what I sing every day.

          So I’d like to pray to this God as we finish our time together.


          God, the one who hears us when we call.

          As we gather to remember Lenny, I thank you again for what he meant to each of us, thank you for the service he
          performed, thank you that his memory continues to live on in each of us.

          And God as we go into our lives, may you grant us your hope as you show us that in a world of uncertainty your
          presence is constant.

          That you are the one who welcomes us into a life lived in the confidence of who you are.

          And so I commit all of us here and those whom we love into your care, through the name of Jesus Christ.



          I’m hoping that it at least gave people something to think about as they went on their way. Feel free to critique as I’m keen to work out how to do this better.

          • Two things I really like about this:
            Your segue from reading the psalm into praying using the line: “So I’d like to pray to this God as we finish our time together.” Relying on the psalmist’s description of God, which is ultimately Scripture.
            Second, your line “That you are the one who welcomes us into a life lived in the confidence of who you are.” To me, this line says a lot in a few words, and is perhaps accessible on multiple levels of understanding, from affirmation for the ‘believer”, to perhaps intrigue for someone with little understanding of the Christian faith.
            Thanks for sharing this Andrew.