I [don’t] vow to thee my country

The church [congregation] I’m part of sings hymns. Mostly they are lovely, and well-chosen. But this morning’s service included ‘I vow to thee my country’ (it made sense given the theme of the service, and how well known it is) … ick.

I have real issues with the content of this hymn (which is slightly awkward, being in the music group and therefore feeling it was not totally OK to just not sing the bits I object to … singing ‘la’ is a suitable alternative, right?). The first verse, which is the bit I object to, goes like this:

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 questions / the love that stands the test
That lays upon the alter / the dearest and the best
The love that never falters / the love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted / the final sacrifice

This seems to me to be … wrong. And not just harmlessly wrong like the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ is wrong (I’m with Dara O’Briain on that – and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? No. And was the holy lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No, not that either …), potentially dangerously wrong. As in links to pointless glorification of nationalism, unquestioning obedience and willingness to die for an ill-defined cause.

‘The love that asks no questions’ is the bit that disturbs me most. I think as a general rule love asks questions – it’s fear that doesn’t ask. Especially when the thing you’re asking is something like a nation-state, not a person. And I think that a state that suppresses or discourages questioning is heading somewhere nasty.

Also, aren’t we supposed to owe our allegiance to God and his kingdom over and above anything else? I know that’s what the last verse is about … but the first verse’s “Entire and whole and perfect” rather seems to overshadow anything else, and very much put nationalism first. It seems to me this is totally contrary to Christ’s message (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself” <– nope, not seeing anything about fighting for or owing allegiance to your country there! And definitely not about giving your country the entirety of your love!).

The final* verse goes

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

which I have no problem with, except that it feels a bit like an afterthought.

Bah. Sometimes I wonder whether I am the only person who has a problem with these things … surely other people – especially now we can look back at the 20th century and see all the wars and genocide – also do a double-take on these words? I know it was written around the first world war and that might excuse what it is – but I feel that’s no excuse for continuing to sing it.

*Wikipedia tells me there’s another verse that goes in the middle but is rarely sung – it’s much more explicitly about war.

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3 Responses to I [don’t] vow to thee my country

  1. beccamariee says:

    Wow, what an interesting post – I remember singing this hymn at school but never gave the words a second thought. I suppose it does makes much more sense in the context of war.

  2. Well, I think it is something to do with the apparent identity crisis that many British people are experiencing now (as an outsider who has been living in this country for a long period of time, I believe I have a fresh perspective on this). I’m certain, a few decades ago this hymn would have aroused noble thoughts and feelings in many English people. Now, I completely understand, it sounds almost absurd. I should say that I have a similar reaction to the Russian national anthem which glorifies contemporary Russia.

  3. I think these days many British people are experiencing a deep identity crisis. I must admit that I am a rather reluctant contributor to this crisis because it’s partly to do with growing immigration (which I am part of) and partly to do with the loss of considerable political power that Britain wielded over the world not so long ago. However, I honestly believe that English people should be proud of their heritage and of their country. They should be proud of their language – no matter how many people in the world speak it and how many claim that it is an easy language to learn, to me personally, English remains one of the richest and most complex languages in the world. They should also be proud of their history and literature – few countries in the world produced Shakespeares.

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