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I Vow To Thee, My Country

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A musical note.Unquestioning love for one's country ... a good or bad thing?
"The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best"
- I Vow To Thee, My Country


LISTEN
Hear the Bishop of Hulme, Stephen Lowe, outline his concerns about the hymn to John (12/08/04).
LISTEN
David H. Burton, biographer of Cecil Spring-Rice, gives his view (13/08/04).
A choir singing.

When it comes to hymns, how much time should we spend analysing the words?
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Wedding rings.

Increasingly, I Vow To Thee, My Country is being chosen by couples getting married.
Princess Diana.

I Vow To Thee, My Country was sung at the funeral of Diana, the Princess of Wales.
A stirring hymn that brings back fond and heart-felt memories for all Britons, or a heretical and 'nationalist' form of words, the singing of which should be banned?

That's the debate sparked by the Bishop of Hulme, the Right Reverend Stephen Lowe, after he voiced his concerns about I Vow To Thee, My Country, written in 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring Rice and later set to music by Gustav Holst.

And it's a debate that (for many of you) has highlighted the many varying ways words written close to a century ago can be interpreted. For the Bishop of Hulme, the interpretation in this case is painfully clear.

"It actually says we're going to support my country whatever it says, entire and whole and perfect, the love unquestioned, which is in the first verse of the hymn, right or wrong," he told John.

"That, I'm afraid, is actually heretical because it actually says that my country's approach to things must be my first call on myself and that my relationship with God or what I believe to be right or wrong is secondary to that."

"It's saying my country right or wrong," he continued. "I don't think anybody could actually say they could adopt an approach whereby they said they would not ask any questions of their government and their policies and so on."

Besides the definition of 'country' in this particular case, his reading of the hymn's lyrics has also sparked a wider debate about the interpretation of individual lines in a piece, with many of you emailing us to argue that, in its entirety, the hymns sends very different messages.

Some though, are in complete agreement with Stephen Lowe's assertions, pointing out that the singing of I Vow To Thee, My Country has always prompted feelings of unease, from its singing at state occasions through to its performance at schools across the union.

Read a selection of your emails below.

Email us YOUR views.
_______________________________________

Both John and the bishop appear to have missed a crucial word in the second line:
I vow to thee my country,
All earthly things above...
The bishop's first point, that the hymn tells you to put your country above your relationship with God, is therefore clearly nonsense.
John answered his second point - that it encourages unquestioning nationalism - well. Country is not the same as government. I love my country. I'm not at all enamoured of the present government.
From: Gerv

“My country" refers to the kingdom of God. Which is “above all earthly things" (poetic line has changed the word order). There is nothing sinister in this hymn!!
From: Mrs.L.Harrow

My first Grammar School headmistress banned this hymn for school assembly. She was of the age to have lost loved ones in both World Wars. I uphold her ban! It's a great shame Holst's lovely passage from "The Planets" was ever used with these dreadful words.
From: Margaret Jonas

What is the man talking about? Entire and whole and perfect, describes the "service of my love" not my country. Just a matter of grammar really.
From: Mary

I went to a prominent girls' grammar school in the 1950's and we were not allowed to sing 'I vow to thee my country’ as it was considered to be nationalist.
From: Meg Cox

Did Jesus not tell us to love unquestioned?
From: Matt Grant

I support Stephen Lowe's comments 100%. There is a version which changes the offending words to "the love that dares to question" - I can't see any problem with that at all, in fact I believe it speaks of a higher love than one than one that "asks no question".
From: Canon Barry Naylor, Leicester Cathedral

I vow to thee my country is not a hymn there is no mention of God in the text. As a church musician I cringe whenever a couple choose to sing it at their wedding.
From: Teresa Brown

It would be a wonderful wedding hymn (or christening hymn) if line 1 was changed to: “I vow to thee, my lover / beloved / my baby".
From: Joan Griffiths

From: There is only one appropriate response to the bishop's comments on 'I vow to thee my country' - and that is to giggle!
From: Francesca Mortimer

I can never hear this hymn without remembering the comment of a greatly loved and respected Head of Tonbridge Girls Grammar School (this was way back in the 50s): when, as occasionally happened, a form chose this hymn, Miss Arnold would always, as she announced it, ask us to think carefully as we sang it: could we really subscribe to the view expressed?
From: Margaret Mascall

I wonder where the feeling of patriotism has disappeared to in today's thinking. In 1918, when Celcil Spring-Rice wrote this hymn, Great Britain was overcoming the effects of the first world war, when so many people "vowed to their country" to save the lives and freedom of those who followed. You may think by now that this is outdated and contrary to modern thinking. However I, and incidentally, I am too young to have fought in the Second World War never mind the first, but I feel to the Bishop is talking absolute poppycock. This is akin to the church using the word humankind in place of mankind because the former might be thought of as sex discrimination. Oh dear, how does the church think it is going to keep its congregation with such stupidity?
From: Rod Williams

There are other ways to love one's country than just in a political sense. What about looking after the countryside and towns and fellow countrymen?
From: Penny Beauchamp

I am an Anglican parish organist and have found that the hymn "I vow to thee my country" increasingly popular at weddings. It seems to me to be a good allegory for what is meant by the vows the couple make as well as what married love should aim to be. The Bishop is perhaps being too literalistic the hymn has two verses, the second of which acts as a comparison to the first and broadens the allegory out further to one of our duty to nation and to God.
From: Stephen Mott

I've almost finished spluttering and choking after listening to the article about the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country. This is taking the idea of Political Correctness to ridiculous extremes. I have unique memories of that hymn because it was Lord Louis Mountbatten's favourite hymn and I sang it as a solo to a group of Burma Star veterans at Loughborough University in September 1994, accompanied by a military band. I thought at the time how appropriate it was for that occasion. Those men didn't question what they did - they got on with it and many thousands of them died doing it and I was proud to be chosen to stand up in front of them and sing it. Maybe the Bishop should remember that the second verse:
"And there's another country I heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know.
We may not see 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"
Does not make any sense without the first!!!
From: Caroline Andrews

I completely agree with your speaker today re 'I vow to thee my country'. It's a beautiful and stirring tune, but its words are un-Christian because it puts country before God and our country before others. Indeed, I went to an annual City service a few years ago in the City with religious hopes and was completely appalled that all the hymns were of this ilk. It was one of the main reasons I have now left the Anglican Church. I would definitely support a re-write of the words to stir singers to love of God, rather than love of country.
From: Robyn Cox

The love of my country would be one of the strongest emotions I feel, that is the love of the British countryside, its people and the values of tolerance and decency being British should involve. I despair of a Government that pursues a ridiculous war in Iraq and whose ignorance and arrogance threaten the rural life I revere. To sing of commitment to God and country is in no way to accept this Government’s values or the extreme views of any organisation that might choose to wrap our national flag about their doubtful values.
From: Matthew Higgs

At my northern Girls' grammar school we were not allowed to sing this hymn. Our headmistress was one of the generation for whom the First World War had been very real she disliked too its blind patriotism. I, too, since those days have felt the same way. Incidentally those of us studying history in the 6th Form were also cautioned against a chapter in A L Rowse's book on the idea / nature (can't remember title) of history. I have always been grateful to be educated at a school where we were taught to look at the words we say and read. Bravo for the Bishop of Hulme.
From: Lorna Fowler

I heard the Bishop talk about banning this hymn, I feel if you listen to verse two you must realise that verse one is not so much a hymn to 'country right or wrong, as a recognition that however much we love our country, there is something better and richer that deserves our love, and that country has no armies, no war, and no boundaries - remember that whenever you sing it and you can't go far wrong.
From: Alison Hannah

The big problem is that its dreadful words set to a great tune. Holst was asked to set the poem for a great rally and realised that that theme from The Planets had the right metre. Job done! Because of the wonderful tune we've been saddled with a shocking hymn.
From: Nicholas Taylor

As a non-Christian at school in the 70's I used to join in the hymns with gusto, but was always embarrassed by "I Vow to Thee My Country”. The music is indeed lovely, but the sentiments are distasteful, to say the least.
From: Rachel Pearce

Oh dear. One can excuse Humphrys, but you'd have thought a Bishop would not make the mistake of assuming that the 'country' in question is Heaven and not England. The country is 'all earthly things above', which most religious would take to mean 'above all earthly things', i.e. in Heaven. I hesitate to use the word 'stupid', but clearly, not all Bishops are up to it.
From: Paul

I don't question my children before loving them my love is unconditional - which does not prevent me from sometimes being critical of them or disagreeing with them. It might occasionally be in their best interests for me to act in a way which they might perceive as being against them, precisely because I love them. I take love of country to be an extension of family love. The Bishop was putting a very narrow and shallow interpretation on a fine hymn.
From: Rosemary Oliver

It’s incredible that the Bishop should be wasting time and thought by castigating a perfectly innocent and jolly hymn, when there are presumably so many really important things on his agenda. We say or sing many things which we either take with a pinch of salt or which carry a metaphoric or symbolic meaning. Whenthe Bishop says the Creed does he really mean it literally (or even symbolically, come to that?) I’m surprised that, so far, the Creed hasn’t been deemed politically incorrect!
From: Pat Alexander

Rather pleased (as an atheist) to hear a bishop voicing the opinion of this hymn that I formed as a young teenager 35 years ago. 'The love that asks no questions' is an abdication of the moral responsibility to think for ourselves. We see the problems of unthinking allegiance all around us all the time. (I wouldn't ban the hymn though - there is far too much banning going on.) Of course love must ask questions. Could parents love their children properly, support and safeguard them, without questioning them?
From: Rosy Reynolds

What do you think? Email us your views.


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