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Can ‘I vow to thee’ be renovated?

08 November 2013

Is it possible to adapt this hymn so that it can be sung with integrity, asks Gordon Giles


Honoured: a Remembrance Day service last year in Royal Wootton Bassett

Honoured: a Remembrance Day service last year in Royal Wootton Bassett

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.

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. 

"Urbs Dei (The City of God) or The Two Fatherlands"
Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918

THERE is much confusion about this hymn, its provenance and purpose, and whether it is appropriate for Christian worship in the 21st century. It does not mention God (and is therefore unique in those hymn books that include it), and is arguably not a hymn at all. Some of its ideas are regarded as offensive today, but many people - including many who have served in the armed forces - find it moving. I would argue that, with a little adaptation, it can become a hymn about different approaches to faith.

Its author, Cecil Spring Rice, was a diplomat, who between 1912 and 1917 served as British ambassador to Washington. During that period, the United States remained neutral, but it was his job to encourage the Americans to enter the fray; the fact that they did so is partly credited to him.

Earlier, in 1911 or 1912 (some say 1908), he had written a three-verse poem, "Urbs Dei", which addressed how a Christian might owe loyalty to both earthly and heavenly kingdoms. His friend Valentine Chirol wrote in a memoir that the hymn version was "written on 12 Jan 1918 . . . on the eve of his final departure from Washington. The vow recorded in [the words] had been kept long before he put it into words, for he had served his country with 'the love that never falters', and though he knew it not, he was already a dying man" (quoted in Songs of Praise Discussed, 1933).

Having written the text before the unimaginable tragedies of the war, the reality of that conflict drove him to reflect on and adapt his original text, most significantly cutting a complete central verse. What he left in was self-sacrifice and a notion that there are two countries, a national one at war and a heavenly one of peace.

Nevertheless, many would question whether we can sing of a love that "asks no question", that "lays on the altar the dearest and the best", and that juxtaposes the service of country and that "other country" of faith. Should we, undaunted, make the sacrifice of our sons and daughters, laying their lives on the altar in wars that we might struggle to call as holy or just? These are real questions for those who go, or see their loved ones go, to fight in arenas of conflict today.

THE notion of "vowing" everything to a country, including the sacrifice of one's life for the glorification of nationhood, challenges sensibilities today.

The idea relies on a dated military concept of fighting for "King and Country". The first verse sets this as the norm to be contrasted with the other country, whose king is God. For many, it is the root of the comparison that gives offence, as it is based in the idea of a king as head of an empire, whose bounds need to be preserved for the benefit of its subjects at home and abroad.

In post-colonial Britain, this comes across as patronising and unjust. Nowadays, "for Queen and Country" does not mean what "for King and Country" meant when it referred to an Empire to be preserved rather than peace and justice to be protected.

Associating duty to King and Empire with a divine call to kill people and surrender one's own life is a theologically inept reading of Jesus's teaching that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another. Nor is it to be gainsaid that soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice are guaranteed a place in the heavenly Kingdom (the "another country" that inspires verse two): that is a strange doctrine indeed.

Furthermore, 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. The laying down of one's life is central to the gospel, but that does not mean that each singer should make an unquestioning renunciation of everything he or she holds dear in the cause of national interests, even if there is the hope of heaven afterwards.

OTHERS, on the other hand, especially those with military connections, still sing "I vow to thee my country" with pride. They are much moved by doing so, and can become upset if they are prevented from singing it. It is hard to say whether it is the words or the tune Thaxted that make this so: it is probably the combination of the two, which bond together beautifully.

Vaughan Williams's tune Abinger is never used, but the loyalty of verse one and the prayer for world peace in verse two, and the way of speaking of heaven as a country - a real place, whose "fortresses of love" are our true home - inspires many to remember the sacrifices of others and to recommit themselves to peace. The fact that God does not get a mention does not make it unchristian. Soldiers can sing these words with a power that others cannot.

This raises a question about whether the text could be rewritten to dispel the conflict of interpretation. It is both an adaptation and a truncation of the original poem already. Spring Rice might have made further changes, if he had lived to see the war concluded.

HERE is a slightly adapted version, which attempts to sharpen any theological or emotional ambiguity about what is meant by sacrifice - for ourselves, or for members of our family, our friends or fellow countrymen whom we send to wars for political or humanitarian purposes.

 I vow to thee, my country, the service of my love,
in full and free devotion, all lesser claims above:
the love that craves no glory, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that strives for justice, the love that pays the price,
and makes, for God and country, the final sacrifice. 

Yet there's another country, established long ago,
most dear to them that love her, best hope of them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
the faithful heart, her fortress; her pride, her suffering;
and soul by soul, in silence, her shining bounds increase,
and all her ways are gracious, and all her paths are peace. 

We need good Remembrance-tide hymns, and Spring Rice's poem offers words of faith encountering the dilemma of dying so that others might live (making the "final sacrifice"); of fighting for peace (the war of verse one, and the peace of verse two); and faith so committed to a just cause that it speaks in terms of a vow to God and country. All of this comes together powerfully and poignantly in Spring Rice's poem, which still divides opinion, a century after it was written.

The Revd Dr Gordon Giles is Vicar of St Mary Magdalene's, Enfield, and Director of Post-Ordination Training in the Edmonton area of the diocese of London. He is a director of the English Hymnal Company, and an editor of the recent Ancient and Modern hymnal.

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