Thursday, August 12, 2004

A racist hymn?

A Church of England bishop has called for the banning of a popular hymn, I Vow to Thee, My Country, because it is too nationalistic.

I looked at the words of the hymn, but couldn't find much that might be considered objectionable. It's true that part of a line does mention vowing to your country a "love that asks no question". If the line simply means "My loyalty is so deep that it is never brought into question" then there's no problem. It's only if the line is read as meaning "My love for my country means I never question what it does" that it becomes an expression of a false, mindless loyalty.

The nationalism of the poem is also a little overwrought, but this is understandable given it was written at the end of World War One, when a generation of British men had indeed made tremendous sacrifices for their country.

Which brings us back to the Bishop of Hulme. He says that "it is dangerous for a nation to suggest that our culture is somehow superior to others." This comment reveals the influence over the bishop of a secular liberal philosophy.

For liberals, society is a collection of competing wills. Social dynamics are therefore understood in terms of a "will to power" of some groups over others. So, for the bishop, an expression of nationalism can only be understood as one group, the English, asserting a right to dominance, a right to superiority, over another group, the non-English.

But this liberal understanding entirely misses the point of the hymn. The hymn stresses very clearly that national feeling is not based on a will to power but on a love of country. In fact, the hymn makes no mention at all of English superiority, and could easily be adopted by any other national group. And far from urging national dominance, the hymn actually calls for gentleness and peace.

The problem is therefore not the nationalism of the hymn but the liberalism of the bishop. The bishop is conceiving things too much in bad faith; he needs to trust better the nationalism that is based on a genuine love of one's own country and people.


  1. This is a terrible piece of cultural vandalism. If I remember rightly 'I Vow to Thee, My Country' is sung to the tune of Holst's 'Jupiter'. That may not mean much if you're not a classical buff, but when you hear the tune you'll immediately recognise it. It could be the most beautiful melody by any British composer. It's a wonderful, profound, emotional hymn when you hear it sung.

    Vandalism, pure and simple.

    (was it used in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence? - not sure, maybe not, but it was used in some well known movie anyway).

    Kip Watson

  2. "The nationalism of the poem is also a little overwrought, but this is understandable given it was written at the end of World War One, when a generation of British men had indeed made tremendous sacrifices for their country."

    Indeed! However, what the Bishop also seems to overlook is that this is a HYMN!!! One normally expects some emotion in a religious hymn. I wonder what this Bishop thinks of William Blake's moving hymn, "Jerusalem"?
    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England's mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England's pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the Countenance Divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among these dark Satanic mills?

    Bring me my bow of burning gold!
    Bring me my arrows of desire!
    Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England's green and pleasant land.

    The Bishop of Hulme reminds me of 'Bishop Owen Featherhead", the satirical character in Christopher Akehurst's Argus column, which used to appear in the centre of Quadrant.

    You are right, Mark, to identify the influence of a modernist ideology on the Bishop. For a Bishop in the Church of _England_ to have such a knee-jerk reaction to the loyalty to one's nation is typical. Ideologues of both Marx and closed Liberalism are suspicious of any loyalty to any institution that creates an independent social bond between people. Thus they tend to be suspicious of patriotism/national loyalty, the family, the monarchy and (ironically in this case!) the Church.

    Of course, any of these loyalties can become exclusivist and ideological. National loyalty, when turned into an exclusive ideology (fascism or nationalism), can be just as anti-social an ideology as any other. Originally, however,nationalism meant that each nation has something unique and precious to contribute to the humanist project. In this light, nationalism has been a vital element of social cohesion in the modern era. This point of view also means that each nation genuinely is 'superior' to all others in some way, and can learn from others in other respects.

    Given that this concept evolved during the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it is stunning that a Bishop in the Church of England can make comments that seem to indicate ignorance of the nature of the national project, and which are so firmly locked in a shallow, modernist view of the world.