Occasionally I have a dilemma – does a poor, or even theologically incorrect text take precedence over a wonderful tune when thinking about hymns? Usually no, but every once in a while I am swayed by a tune over the text and one such case is Gustav Holst’s hymn, based on the slow section of Jupiter from “The Planets”. It’s one of those tunes that gets into my head and refuses to go away. The dilemma arises when you read the words in verse one:
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.
At first glance, a perfect hymn for a national holiday, such as yesterday’s July 4th celebration At second glance I realize with dismay that the text asks us to love our country without questioning it. This is not the place to espouse my political beliefs, but speaking only for myself at this moment, I feel most patriotic when I question my government’s actions or the ideas of our political leaders because to ask those questions is to care enough to want the world to see what is best about our country. I am uncomfortable with these words that seem to ask us to love country more than God.
Fortunately the hymn continues with a second verse:
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.
Perhaps not the greatest poetry ever written, but certainly a more hopeful and appropriate text for people of faith as it conveys that there is heavenly place where there is no need for soldiers and where peace prevails.
The hymn’s text was written to give some sense of meaning to the huge loss of British lives in World War I by Cecil Spring-Rice, while he was serving as British Ambassador to the United States. In August 2004, the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, called for this beloved British hymn not to be used in Church of England services, calling it “totally heretical”, in its placing of national loyalties over religious ones.
While I can’t disagree, I ask that you simply listen to a beautiful piece of music without worrying about the words too much. And who knows, perhaps a poet among us will be inspired to come up with a new, more meaningful text.