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??

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