"I Vow to Thee, Humanity" – Is patriotism displeasing to God?
From Father Silas:
Time was when “the silly season” referred to the dog-days of August: almost everyone was on holiday, there was not much real news, and journalists had to dig up daft stories to fill the pages of their newspapers. We used almost to look forward to reading stuff falling into the “Man Bites Dog” category, adding, as they did, to the general sense of unseriousness that was a normal and healthy part of the summer break. Perhaps it is now because there is so much “news” – by which I mean space which has to be filled with news, on dedicated TV and radio channels and the internet, in addition to the press – that silly seasons occur all the time. There isn’t enough actual news, so we make do with what we can find. What is sometimes called Remembrance-tide is a rich vein of such stories, this year’s provided by a north London vicar, the Reverend Dr Gordon Giles.
Dr Giles wrote a column in last week’s Church Times headlined: “Can ‘I vow to thee’ be renovated? I was wary: my instinct was to say to myself “No, obviously it can’t”, and move on to Andrew Brown’s waspish press column. But I’m glad I stopped to read it, not least because a generally unsympathetic report on it surfaced in the next day’s Daily Mail: “Words to patriotic hymn I Vow To Thee My Country are ‘almost obscene’ and not fit for Christians, claims vicar.”
It needs to be said that, in the Church Times article, Dr Giles did not say that the words were “obscene". He said that “…if the cause is wealth, power, influence or national pride, then the sacrifice is diminished, and its connection to the 'pride' of suffering is, for many, almost obscene”. I find this rather convoluted and not entirely convincing; but no matter. The gist of his generally reasonable article was that “I vow to thee” was very popular, particularly at this time of year; but that some people nowadays disliked its patriotic sentiment and disapproved of its being sung in church (some argue that it’s not really a hymn since it doesn’t mention God). But in recognition of its popularity, especially when sung to Holst’s soaring tune 'Thaxted', Dr Giles proposed that some amendment of Cecil Spring Rice’s words could redeem it and, so to speak, render it respectable. And he helpfully presented to us some new words, presumably of his own composition. I will spare you their reproduction here: suffice it to say that they – shall we say – lack the poetry of Spring Rice’s, while nonetheless relying heavily upon them.
Now I will confess to you a prejudice. It is that I dislike hymns whose words, learned in childhood by many of us, are summarily changed to reflect supposed modern sensibilities; so that when we sing them by and from the heart, we stumble over small alterations that have been recently introduced, usually in the interests of gender-inclusiveness or to tone down military imagery. (The modern hymn-book Hymns Old and New is an egregious example, and actually includes a hymn called “Onward Christian Pilgrims” – which I suspect nobody sings.) And that is my first point. The fact that the words of hymns may not exactly reflect a modern outlook is not of itself sufficient reason to change what people have sung for decades. Continuity, familiarity and affection are important and should be respected. The words of “I vow to thee my country” are, for many, beautiful and moving and express something of what they actually feel, both about their earthly country and about their heavenly country. If you dislike or disapprove of them, by all means don’t sing them – but please don’t presume to change them.
The second point is this. The fact that patriotic sentiment is now politically incorrect (more so in England than elsewhere, I have noticed) does not make it wrong. A love of one’s country does not displace or diminish one’s love for God or the recognition that His reign and His commandments are first in our love and loyalty. I know where my ultimate home is, and nothing can change that. But for the time being, my earthly home is here, in a land created by God and inhabited by generations of extraordinary human beings, some of whom have loved it to the extent of laying down their lives for it. Who is to say their, or my, patriotism is displeasing to God?
Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.