Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I Vow To Thee My Country: Idolatry Set to a Good Tune

I vow to thee, my Saviour, 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.

That would have been a good hymn, reflecting Romans 12:1 "therefore I urge you, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship."

But change one word and it becomes something else entirely

"I vow to thee my country...."
Now the song offers to a country, a human institution, what should be offered to God alone: utter devotion,  unquestioning service, the offering of 'the dearest and the best'. It rates the nation as 'above all earthly things'. There's a technical term for this: idolatry. The sentiment wouldn't be out of place in North Korea. 

The second verse, rarely sung, is a barely disguised bit of army recruitment propaganda:
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 the final verse paints a thin gloss of spirituality over the whole thing, so thin it can't even bring itself to mention crude terms like 'heaven' or 'eternal life'. :

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.

'Heard of long ago' - a vague suggestion that the author hasn't been in contact with the Christian faith since their infancy? The rest of the 'hymn' would certainly suggest it. Heaven is the stuff of childrens stories, which is 'dear to them that love her' (contrast the absolute demands of v1)  offering the vague promise of a place of 'gentleness and peace', the rewards of faith annexed to nationalist propaganda. 

I can understand why, 100 years ago, the song and its lyrics might have had some resonance, in particular with the horrific events of the first world war. But it's still very hard to see why it's treated as a Christian hymn, or why it's sung in places like St. Pauls Cathedral. It makes Jerusalem look mainstream orthodox.

Having said all that, this morning I conducted a funeral which concluded with 'Bat out of Hell' by Meatloaf, so anything purist I have to say about music and lyrics has to be taken with a pinch of salt.


  1. I preached about I vow to thee one
    Remembrance Sunday and nearly got lynched afterwards

  2. Yep. Agreed.

    I had a bit of a bash at this last Armistice Day.