At a memorial service held in the Wellington Town Hall April 25 1916, the Rev. James Gibb acknowledged, ‘This is the first anniversary of a day which will be forever memorable in the annals of New Zealand.” One month later, Leeston Presbyterian Church held a dedication service on 28 May 1915 to place a Memorial Tablet for Major William Grant, Chaplain to the Forces and killed at Gallipoli. The minister noted “there had been opened in history of New Zealand and Australia a chapter which would never be closed…”
Until the 1930s the ‘Outlook’ published a regular ANZAC sermon which reflected a mixture of sorrow and grief, gratitude, nostalgia and pride. The sermon generally drew on issues of valour, commitment, the need for all to be humble and to re-dedicate oneself to seeking peace.
In 1934 the writer of a regular feature ‘Comment’ indicated that not all was well with the annual ANZAC Day. It was becoming less ‘holy’ and the population saw the day as a holiday before the onset of winter. The writer felt that the spontaneity of ANZAC was passing and believed that within a short few years few people would hold little interest in ANZAC as a day of commemoration. The ‘drifting and cynical spirit of the times’ meant the cause of peace was being left to a few.
A widespread dissatisfaction existed among many Christian people as to the purpose of ANZAC Day. Judging by letters to the Editor of the ‘Outlook’ and comments found in various parish records little consensus existed as to what the ANZAC ideal was among Presbyterians 20 years after Gallipoli.
The most vocal Presbyterians supported the ANZAC ideal as one of peace but the spectrum of how that peace could be achieved and sustained extended from pacifism to a just war. As one writer noted, ‘the memory of ANZAC is a challenge for new thought and courage’ to redefine why New Zealanders wish to continue ANZAC Day.
All agreed however that fundamental to any ANZAC commemoration was Christian worship. Presbyterians saw an immediate threat in 1946 when the Roman Catholic Church along with a number of Returned Soldiers’ Association suggested that the service be less sectarian. Roman Catholics because of theological differences had excluded themselves from a civic service since the inception of ANZAC Day. The Editor of ‘Outlook’ considered their suggestion to be ‘erroneous and subversive’. Dunedin Presbytery stated that, ‘a service in which there is no approach to God in prayer and in which the Word of God is excluded in favour of the words of a modern poet, would be unacceptable to the bulk of Christian citizens’.
The debate continued into the 1960s with a growing unease of RSA and military domination leaving little room for the general public participation. Those opposed to ANZAC began to suggest that the commemorations glorified war and the legislated restrictions placed on the day became an increasing irritation to many. Attendance at ceremonies had been decreasing and a general public malaise towards the RSA became evident.
By 1964 public discontent reached a peak when ANZAC Day fell on a Saturday. The General Assembly debated the possibility of a Day of Thanksgiving, a suggestion put forward by the Baptist Union of New Zealand. The following year the Public Questions Committee put forward recommendations from the Inter-Church Council supporting the continuation of ANZAC Day as a public holiday and reiterating the belief that ANZAC Day had definite values of a spiritual and moral nature in promoting the ideals and aims of world peace.
A Consultation on the Observance of ANZAC Day under the auspices of the National Council of Churches was held in 1972 where interested groups within the church and society came together to air their views. The outcome made little impression on Presbyterian circles and no further debate on the purpose and observance of ANZAC at General Assembly or at Committee level has taken place since.