CHAPTER 12 — CHURCH PARADES
UNIT Routine Orders on Saturday mornings used to mention the Church services for the following day under two headings: Church Parades and Voluntary Services. When the time came for Church parade the Roman Catholics marched off to Mass and the others to where the unit service was to be held. A building was normally better than the open air for Church parades, for the men could sit down and escape from some of the parade-ground formality; there was often a piano, and it was easier to sing indoors. The service usually consisted of two or three hymns, a reading from the Bible, some prayers, and a short address, the whole lasting about half an hour. Church of England chaplains used a special prayer book, which was distributed before the service and consisted of a shortened form of Morning Prayer with a small selection of psalms, prayers, and hymns. The other chaplains used a hymn book compiled by the YMCA, but, although two books were used, all the services followed a uniform pattern.
The chaplain had to triumph over his surroundings and make the ugly cinema or gloomy canteen feel like a real church. He had to lead the singing and tell the men when to stand and when to sit during the service. He had to be acutely aware of the ‘feel’ of a service and take steps to keep that ‘feel’ right. If a hymn was not a success it had to be stopped in the middle; if the day was particularly hot he might shorten the Scripture reading and the prayers; and if he felt that attention was wandering he had to find some way of regaining interest. Some chaplains could sense the feeling of a congregation before the service began and would adapt their methods accordingly.
The chaplain found difficulty in preparing his sermons. He had few books of reference and no quiet study in which to read them; moreover, if he prepared his sermon too early in the week it would often be out of date or unsuitable by Sunday because of some military event or item of news. His sermon had to be short, concentrating on one important point, and a leavening of wit and Army phraseology was appreciated.page 90
The chaplain enjoyed a relationship with his congregation and parishioners which was much closer than that normally found in civilian life. After the service he would receive praise, suggestions, and friendly criticism, which was often extremely valuable. Many an officers' mess helped to keep the chaplain on the right track. ‘My chaps said they liked your sermon this morning,’ one platoon commander would say. ‘The men don't know that last hymn,’ another would add, while perhaps a third would make a suggestion: ‘Why not tell us one Sunday, Padre, what is the Christian teaching about death. I think the men would be interested, but don't make it too gloomy.’ When a chaplain had served for some time with a unit and had proved himself, he could be sure that his congregation would give him friendly and intelligent support as he tried to apply the teaching of Jesus Christ to the everyday life of the soldier. But in Base camps and in some other places, the chaplain often had to preach to strangers who would not give him the same sympathetic hearing.
Denominational Church Parades
Church parades on a denominational basis took place, when conditions permitted, about once a month at the beginning of the war. They caused a great deal of extra trouble, and besides, many commanding officers disliked seeing their units split into five or six sections on Sunday mornings. An officer had to be found for each group, and it was a complicated business getting the men into their right groups and to their correct destinations. In the Division the men usually preferred their own chaplain to any other, regardless of denomination.
The main advocates of this system of occasional denominational parades were Church of England chaplains who wanted an opportunity to give uncompromising Church teaching in regard to preparation for confirmation, attendance at Holy Communions, and other matters of special interest to Church of England men. It would seem that when there is co-operation and friendship between the members of a Chaplains' Department, there is then a real place for an occasional Church parade by denominations, in spite of administrative and other difficulties. The good work of chaplains and the religious opportunities of war may both be wasted unless page 91 men can be helped to become better members of their own Churches. And reunion in Christendom is more likely when men understand and live up to the teaching of their own faith.
Compulsory Church Parades
In the 2nd NZEF the main Church service on Sunday morning was compulsory. The Roman Catholic services at first were not, but later, at the request of the authorities, the Roman Catholics for the sake of uniformity made them so. Atheists and agnostics were excused but everyone else had to attend. No man could legally be forced to attend a service taken by a chaplain of another denomination, but with the system of unit chaplains in the 2nd NZEF, the unit Church parade was to all intents and purposes compulsory.
Since the war ended compulsory Church parades have been abolished in the British Army, and during the war there was frequent criticism of the system by New Zealanders. The whole idea sounds un-Christian and undemocratic, and yet many chaplains approved of it. So, too, did many senior officers and quite a number of other ranks; for like many other British institutions it may have seemed out of date but it worked. It was a relic from the days when the soldier proceeded everywhere in military formation—to his meals, to his shower, to the doctor, to Church.
Tradition dies hard in the Army for the lessons of war come down through the ages and are not lightly to be set aside. In this war a man was compelled to go to Church but his liberty was protected in several ways. On enlistment he was asked to state his religion. This question often surprised soldiers, and if a man asked why the Army wanted this information he was liable to receive the common reply—that the Army would want to know which chaplain to get for the funeral. If the soldier gave the wrong denomination, or later for any reason wished to change it, he had complete liberty to do so. Any man could have avoided compulsory parades by having his religious classification changed to that of atheist.
Many men said that they liked going to Church but hated the compulsion; they said it spoilt the whole spirit of the service for them. Many civilians listening to soldiers talk must have agreed heartily and decided that such Church parades were old-fashioned page 92 and wicked. But these civilians did not know much about the Army, or about soldiers, or about chaplains. A very strong case can be made for compulsory Church parades, provided the practice is limited to certain specific occasions.
When the recruit goes into camp he is ordered about from morning till night. He is told when to get up in the morning, how often to shave, and what to wear. On the parade ground he is controlled by a petty dictator and often humiliated in public. He is marched to the dentist and the doctor and has to submit to their examinations and treatment. He is given patriotic addresses by politicians and endless instructon by experts—and by others not so expert. At first his life seems to be one long round of duties, fatigues, and irritating restrictions, but in time he begins to discover that there is a reasonable routine and a sensible explanation for many regulations.
The trained soldier still has to perform many distasteful duties and seldom volunteers for extra fatigues, but he does not find Army life nearly as bad as his conversation would suggest. The grousing of a soldier must be taken with a grain of salt. It is a natural and traditional form of self-expression, and muttered fulminations against a sergeant or a regulation do not always give a true picture of a soldier's feelings.
Often there was grousing when a Church parade was ordered, but this was levelled more against the preliminaries than against the service. At the beginning of the war there seemed to be a tradition that the Church parade should be the chief ceremonial parade of the week, with great emphasis laid on ‘smart turn-out’ and drill. Some commanders argued that it would be showing disrespect to God if the Church parade was the poorest military manœuvre of the week, but few privates could view their precision on the parade ground as an act of corporate devotion. Sometimes the Church parade was considered as the Regimental Sergeant-Major's own parade—the one day in the week when he could drill the whole unit as he wished before handing it over to the Adjutant. In the early days a soldier was often drilled and marched about for almost page 93 an hour before he was allowed to sink on to his seat in Church with emotions far removed from religion.
If the service was held in the open air the soldier had to put up with even more drill. A whole series of commands would produce the formation known as a ‘hollow square’, which in point of fact was three sides of a square with the fourth side left open for the chaplain. Each side would be meticulously dressed from every direction, and then the Adjutant would take over. He would fall the officers out in front, give a few commands to show his authority, and then turn smartly to the Colonel; he in turn would stand the men at ease and hand the parade over to the chaplain. The chaplain would then announce the number of the first hymn, sometimes singing it as a solo.
It is easy to make fun of these Church parades and almost impossible to exaggerate some of the silly formality which preceded them, but as the war continued much of the stiffness dropped from them, and troops were marched to the service with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally an old-fashioned sergeant-major survived and set about the laborious business of forming a hollow square. Alas, he was often sacrificed for the general good, and the chaplain, with a gesture worthy of Montgomery, would destroy the beautiful precision and the formal atmosphere by blandly uttering some mild request: ‘Would you chaps mind getting out of those straight lines and coming in a bit closer so that I can speak to you without shouting?’
This over-emphasised preliminary drill accounted for much of the complaint about Church parades. But another side of Army life must be appreciated before the advocates of compulsory services can be understood. Nearly everything in the Army is done by orders and commands. It is often stated that King's Regulations covers every event that can conceivably happen to a man, and the Army in its long life has produce a mass of regulations which prevent, discourage, or punish the mistakes common to soldiers. Experience has shown that all men are lazy in looking after their health. Very well: the Army will compel men to be healthy by regulation. They will be under the close care of a doctor, they will have frequent lectures on health and hygiene, and penalties will be inflicted on those who break the medical laws. The soldier has ben proved page 94 untrustworthy in regard to security, so his letters will be censored, his conversations with civilians reported, and he will have frequent lectures on the subject. Under these conditions the civilian soldier often felt that he had returned to the conditions of his childhood when his every action was supervised by an anxious parent.
This system of life by regulation tended to destroy individual initiative, but the soldier came to see that there was wisdom in its pedestrian routine, although he still reserved to himself the right of complaining and grousing.
The Army dealt with religion in the same matter-of-fact way. Statistics showed that the great majority of recruits claimed to be Christian, so Christian chaplains were supplied and regular times set aside for services. Religion was important, and so the soldier would have to parade for religion in the same way that he paraded for the dentist. Most civilians would benefit by a system of compulsory dental inspection and treatment, for though they admit the importance of dental health they find many excuses for avoiding the dentist. People often treat religion in the same way; and so it will be seen that there were certain justifications for the Army's system of compulsory Church parades.
But were these reasons strong enough to receive the approval of the chaplains? Compulsion in religion is quite contrary to our national tradition. What did the chaplains say?
The chaplains said very little at first. They came into the Army as recruits and found a well-tested organisation which it was unwise to criticise till judgment was fully formed. The compulsory Church parade gave them a large congregation every Sunday, with an opportunity of introducing themselves to the unit and proclaiming the Christian message in the comradeship of arms. There were some obvious advantages. The civilian going into camp found himself in a completely different world, and it was important for the chaplain to state emphatically at the beginning that this new world contained just as many opportunities for the practice of religion as there were in the old. These Church parades showed the recruit what importance the Army attached to religion. The chaplain was aware of these advantages; but did they justify compulsion and the attack on the religious liberty of the individual?
There was a further advantage. A war takes the cream of one page 95 generation of men to distant parts of the world. It uproots them from their civilian work and studies, removes them from their homes and that whole elaborate fabric which is known as the New Zealand, or British, ‘way of life’. The restraining influences of home are left behind and many spiritual dangers have to be faced. Surely, some chaplains would say, if the Army takes so much trouble in looking after the bodies of its soldiers it should also supply safeguards for their souls.
For example, imagine a young New Zealander, brought up on a backblock farm, finding himself suddenly in Cairo, a city whose spiritual dangers are clearly shown by the military statistics for crime and venereal disease. Surely, say these same chaplains, the soldier should be compulsorily armed and prepared to meet these dangers, and who could do that better than the chaplains?
The critics return to the attack. We admit all that, they say. We see quite clearly the need for religion and sound spiritual teaching, but we object to this compulsion. Surely a good chaplain will have a great influence in a unit, and by dint of faithful visiting and splendid sermons attract a large congregation comprising most of the unit; and volunteers will receive his message much more eagerly than men pressed into attendance.
This argument is indisputable but it does not cover all the facts. It presumes that a new system will be introduced into the Army in which voluntary services will take the place of compulsory ones. The chaplain will have to begin with a small band of faithful churchmen and expand it until it includes the whole unit. How long will this take, Will the war last long enough? It presumes that times will be set aside for voluntary services. Men can go to Church if they like, or stay away if they like. It will mean an optional period on Sunday mornings. That period can therefore be filled by other optional activities. The unit football committee can hold a meeting, provided the majority do not want to go to Church, while the quartermaster might even consider it a suitable time to issue equipment. As soon as that period of the morning becomes optional a host of other alternatives will appear, and did appear when the system was tried.
These difficulties are not insurmountable and with wise leadership they could be avoided, but how long would it take the chaplain to page 96 get a system of voluntary parades well and firmly established? In the Division a chaplain was attached to a unit and, if he was any good at all, he could always count on loyal and friendly support; but this came after the men had got to know him. Some chaplains were popular preachers with an immediate appeal to troops, but many did not find preaching easy and it was not until they had proved themselves by their courage and unselfishness that the men would listen with appreciation to their services. Any chaplain of average ability could command the respect and support of a unit if he was given reasonable time.
In the battle area no Church service was compulsory and many Divisional chaplains dispensed entirely with compulsory Church parades. But the Division was quite different from the Base camps or the training camps in New Zealand. Outside the Division the chaplain was usually dealing with troops in transit, and he did not have time to prove himself or to become known; it has been pointed out elsewhere how the spirit of the Division differed from that of a Base camp, where a strong case for compulsory Church parades can be made. The emphatic statement of Christian principles was more important here, and no one needed it more than the man least likely to attend a voluntary service. But the critic still complains about compulsion. Is it probable, he asks, that the man least likely to attend a voluntary service will profit from a compulsory one? A man can be forced to listen, but can he be forced to pray? Of course a man cannot be forced to pray, and if this argument was pressed to its logical conclusion there would still be a good case for turning compulsory Church parades into compulsory Bible Classes, in which straightout ethical and Christian teaching could be given with the reading of appropriate passages from the Bible. But the critic presumes that compulsory Church parades caused a feeling of rebellion and disapproval quite different from the grousing connected with route marches and extra fatigues, and that under such conditions no Church service could achieve its purpose. Such criticism, however plausible in theory, was not true in fact.
What did the Soldier think?
The keen soldier-churchman felt the need for services and enjoyed them; most of the other men enjoyed them once they were there. page 97 Hymns were seldom sung with quality or enthusiasm, save on special occasions when the men were deeply moved or when the conditions were unusually favourable. An exception was the Maori Battalion, where the singing was always good. The presence of a brass band at a service did not help the singing as the men were inclined to listen. It was often better to suggest some subjects for private devotion and let the men sit while the band played sacred music. It was easier to sing at night, and of course there was quite a different atmosphere in the song services.
The men appreciated the prayers, especially those for relations at home and for spiritual strength in meeting the demands of battle or the everyday problems of Army life. They would listen to sermons with attention, specially enjoying those which gave the Biblical history of well-known places in the Middle East, and they would take moral warnings in good part if given simply and sincerely.
The behaviour of men in compulsory Church parades was exemplary and this suggests that these parades were not unpopular. Several hundred men crammed into a cinema, with the officers sitting in the front seats, would have been difficult to control had they wished to make trouble. The officers would have been badly placed to keep order, and they would not have liked to interrupt the service by giving audible rebukes. It would have been easy for troops to ‘play up’ during a Church parade but there is practically no instance of anything like this ever having happened. On the contrary, chaplains would be pleased if their civilian congregations were as well behaved and attentive.
There were many evidences that the services were enjoyed and followed with close attention. On one occasion when two or three thousand troops attended a big open-air service in Maadi, a special form of service had been distributed with the Scripture reading printed in full. The lesson was read beautifully by a Maori chaplain, and when he reached the bottom of a page there was noise like the wind in a forest as the whole congregation turned over the leaf.
No, the critics were definitely wrong when they suggested that there was any strong disapproval of Church parades in the 2nd NZEF. Many a man unconsciously appreciated the fact that they page 98 were compulsory. The war made a man think deeply, and often a self-styled agnostic found himself taking a new interest in doctrinal teaching. Such a man would have hesitated to set out publicly for a voluntary Church service, thereby demonstrating to his friends that he had ‘got religion’, but in the anonymous attendance at a compulsory parade he could receive the teaching and the faith quietly, until the time came when he could accept it in its entirety.
‘No man is an atheist in a fox-hole’, an American once said, and there is much truth in his remark, though it lends itself to unfortunate interpretations. To some it suggests that overpowering fear will force a man to cast away the reasoning of a lifetime and clutch at any superstition or unseen power which might bring help or safety.
In the pacifist years what was called ‘front-line religion’ was dismissed as lightly as physical courage and described as a thing of no lasting value. Many chaplains lying in a slit-trench during a bombardment had an opportunity of testing this opinion. Certainly a man's thoughts turned to prayer, but fear did not seem to be the dominant motive. With death close at hand, many a married man used to think of his wife and children. The man in the trench could do nothing to make the shelling stop. As he listened to the scream of each shell he wondered whether he would be hit, and, if hit, whether he would be killed, buried, or crippled. The whole thing seemed to be a matter of chance. He would be hit or he would not be hit. Never did a man feel so unimportant, so humble, or so powerless.
The unforgettable emotions of enduring shellfire and seeing friends killed were bound to make a man take a more serious view of life. In this mood he found fresh meaning and comfort as he stood amongst his own friends at a Church service and listened to his own chaplain. The fact that he did not become a regular churchgoer for the rest of the war and the rest of his life proves nothing. And to suggest that front-line religion is just a cheap symptom of acute fear is as blasphemous as it is untrue.
It would seem that a good case can be made for compulsory Church parades in training camps in New Zealand, at Base camps overseas, and with certain Base units. In Divisional units parades could remain compulsory till a campaign began. In this way the recruit entering camp learned the place of religion and the chaplain in the Army; the young man, wrenched suddenly from his civilian background, received a certain spiritual protection as he wandered in the far parts of the world; and every man in a Divisional unit came to know his chaplain and was thus prepared to make full use of him in battle.
In addition, the corporate spirit of a unit was greatly helped by corporate worship. Compulsory parades failed when the chaplain was bad, but there was no place in the Army for a bad chaplain. It was better to send him home at once. When the chaplain was good, and this means sincere, hardworking, and honest, with perhaps no special gifts of oratory, proficiency in sport or on the stage, then he could be assured that his work in the Army would be useful and that his congregations would be loyal and friendly. In spite of what individuals may say, in spite of traditional grousing, the system of Church parades in the 2nd NZEF whether compulsory or voluntary, worked exceedingly well, and many of the most popular chaplains always had compulsory Church parades outside the battle area.