An heretical Hymn

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Words by Cecil Spring-Rice; Music by Gustav Holst, adapted from ‘Jupiter’ in the ‘Planets’ suite; this version is known as ‘Thaxted’.

I find this hymn deeply troubling, and almost more troubling is the rarity of Christian protest at it. It is frequently sung at Remembrance Day services, was sung at both the wedding and the funeral of Princess Diana, and of course recently was part of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. That second verse is rarely sung, and I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies….

In its present form it apparently reflects the trauma in Britain of the massive losses in the First World War of 1914-18; In its original form it was called ‘Urbs Dei’, the City of God, and was somewhat re-written after WWI. That title of course links it back to Augustine whose book of that name was a massively influential exposition of the concept of ‘Christendom’, the Christian state that began under the Emperor Constantine and still goes on in various slightly different forms including England’s established church. It was that idea which influenced the writer of ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ with its perspective of dual allegiance to nation and to God.

Vowing things to your country is perhaps not necessarily unChristian; I still find it a matter for concern that it is the first strong line of the verse. I would much have preferred to put God first and my duty to him, and only later say what duty I might owe the earthly country. It is one of the problems of thinking of a ‘Christian’ holy nation that it tends to deify the nation, to end up in practice putting the nation first; it is as Jesus said of God and another worldly temptation – you can’t serve God and Mammon (money), it’s all too likely that Mammon will win out, and it is the same with God and state. I recall seeing a documentary about the modern Russian Orthodox Church from which it was all too obvious that for some Orthodox priests God exists for Mother Russia rather than the other way round.

What is vowed to the country is really disturbing, starting with the fact that it is vowed ‘all earthly things above’. Apparently I am to vow ‘entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love’; no, even with the qualification ‘all earthly things above’ this is just too much. The country by implication comes before family, before friends, and before all the other human beings who don’t happen to be citizens of the country, and before lots of other things which also deserve my love. Further, this love ‘asks no question’; even God allows us to ask questions of Him in love – see the example of Job, of Paul about that thorn in his flesh, and of many of the prophets as they suffered in His service. Also though it’s not quite the same thing we are told to ‘test the spirits’ ( ) in church affairs, not just take things for granted. If the country wants no questions asked that’s a bit over the top; and in any case the whole of history tends to show that what countries want should be questioned, otherwise you end up not asking questions about things like the Holocaust.

The rest of verse one is a bit worrying even without knowing it’s related to the First World War; “the love that stands the test; that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best. … that never falters… that pays the price… that makes the final sacrifice” – the ‘final sacrifice’ being of course to die for the country. Hmmm – would I make that final sacrifice for ‘my country’? For the country in the abstract, no, I don’t think so; for any current whims of our government, no way!!! For the narrow racism and domineering wishes of the extreme right, again no, because there are heavenly values which should preclude that. But for the people and for the best of Britain, yes, possibly. But even at the earthly level there is plenty of the ‘dearest and best’ that wouldn’t, for me come second to the country, while precisely because the country itself is very much an earthly thing, there would be a lot of faltering to be sure that I was paying a price for good reason.

But there is a bigger problem, not quite so evident in verse 1 but made all too clear in verse 2; this ‘hymn’ doesn’t envisage just that I sacrifice myself for others, as Christians should be willing to do. All too clearly in verse 2, it expects that I will go to war on my country’s behalf, become a soldier fighting for my country. Although phrased in terms of dying for my country, it’s first about being willing to kill for my country – a soldier who won’t kill is not a great deal of use! And immediately, this is a conflict not with earthly things but with the heavenly, with my obligations to God himself. Like, I believe I shouldn’t kill for my faith, should follow the example of Jesus in ‘turning the other cheek’ and being willing to suffer death rather than inflict it – but according to this hymn, I am going to kill for ‘my country’, an entity far less than God, far inferior in every way! How does that add up??

Advertisements

About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.