Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 05:15 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 05:15 | SYDNEY

Remembrance and religion


James Brown


11 November 2010 23:19

Several Lowy colleagues and I attended today’s Remembrance service in Sydney's Martin Place. It is a particularly moving ceremony — full of pomp and humility in equal measure, yet also underpinned by uniquely Australian egalitarianism. During the ceremony, one of the officials seeing a particularly elderly medal–resplendent couple standing on the sidelines, lifted a rope and ushered them to hastily arranged seats in the front row of the VIP section.

Remembrance Day is an occasion that draws out community groups from all over the city — choirs, marching bands, scouts and school groups — a tangible reminder of the kind of delightful community spirit that fallen veterans missed out on.

I was struck by how dominantly Christian the ceremony was. Three prayers were offered by a military padre, and my favourite military hymn was sung ('Of God Our Help in Ages Past'). This would have been entirely appropriate in the early days of Remembrance Day services when our veterans and citizens alike thought of themselves as British as well as Christian. Yet Christianity no longer has a monopoly on wartime sacrifice in Australia.

Lowy Institute Navy Fellow Justin Jones remarked to me that under his command he had Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim sailors all wearing the Australian Naval Ensign. Today's Remembrance ceremony, in Sydney at least, was as much a tribute to soldiers currently deployed on operations as it was a tribute to those of the Great War. Statistically today's Australian soldier is just as likely to be of no identified religion as he or she is to be a member of one of the major Christian denominations.

This creates a difficult tension. How do we stay faithful to our military past which is so embedded in Christian traditions whilst ensuring that all our soldiers can participate in an important national ceremony'

Paying tribute to our wartime dead is as close as we come to sacred in our secular nation. To stand in the stillness of the Australian War Memorial or to move through Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance is to experience sacred ground.

We are a secular nation, and as Justice Michael Kirby reminded earlier this year — secularism is a tolerant rather than a militant concept. Section 116 of our Constitution reminds that 'the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion'. Yet we begin every session of Federal Parliament with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. And we ended today's ceremony just the same way.

Photo by Flickr user Lee Hopkins, used under a Creative Commons licence.