Sunday, 11 November 2012

I Vow to Thee, My Country

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.

I heard this hymn on the radio this morning. And I thought, "No, no, no, no, no."

To be sure, I'm proud of my country. Of the land; the people; our relative tolerance; of the earliness with which we found a balance between People and State; of our incomprehensible way of managing affairs; of our relative freedom of speech; of our justice system; of our history and our sense of humour.

But to put my country above all earthly things would require heavenly things to include an awful lot: family; friendship; truth; justice; honesty; love. It's a shocking image - to "llay upon the altar the dearest and the best." Not that shocking images are always wrong. But an altar implies a sacrifice, and the sacrifice implies someone or something to which that sacrifice is made. And there's only One worth "the dearest and the best", and that One has made it clear there's no need for any more sacrifices, thanks very much.

Take my great-great Uncle Ernie. We don't know which corner of a foreign field is his. I can, however, point you to two places where his name is written - one in Holloway and one at Thiepval. I don't know whether he was kind, or brave, but he was someone's dearest and best. He was laid on the altar of the mud and barbed-wire of the Somme. A war that started in the far-off empire of Austria-Hungary, ended in a North London boy dying at the hands of Germans, in France. In Aussies dying - and killing - in Turkey. In Germans dying on Eastern and Western fronts. Whose bloody stupid idea was that?

Look, I'm not saying we should never fight a war. But it's only ever going to be the last option. And romanticising your country makes it more likely that you'll waste its dearest and its best. And you don't lose those without the best of reasons.

The dead are to be honoured - regardless of whether their leaders were right or wrong; monsters, or those who believed there was no alternative; whether they took their countries into war for good reasons or bad, as the last straw or as the first mover. So let's honour the dead. And work and pray and argue and negotiate to try and make sure nothing like it ever happens again. And hold those in charge to account if they ever go to war when they didn't have to. Because that would be the best way of honouring them.


  1. Archdruid Eileen - what a moving post. I was just looking at works by William Orpen (offical WWI War Artist. I found two paintings of Thiepval (one is a little grisly, I'm afraid) which are very moving. The links are here:,Thiepval-1917.jpg


    1. Thank you very much! But please feel free to tell us who you are next time. Otherwise we won't know when you've come back.

  2. I'm still waiting to see Tony Blair and George Bush being brought up before the International War Crimes Tribunal.

    Probably never in their lifetimes, so there is only one Judge left for both of them.

  3. It's 'the love that asks no question' that among other lines I can't sing in this hymn. We should ask questions, not go along with the 'my country right or wrong' type of patriotism.

  4. Oh yes, Eileen, absolutely. My great-uncle Walter's name is on the Menin Gate memorial - 21, with all his life ahead of him. He volunteered, but didn't deserve to have his life thrown away trying (as a stretcher-bearer) to rescue those killed and injured to gain a few yards of frozen mud.

  5. I absolutely agree with every word Eileen.
    I lost a young uncle in the 2nd world war. He was a CPO in the Royal Navy. His submarine went down with all hands, he was 24 years old, had been married less than a year and had a baby daughter.
    An uncle by marriage died in Burma.
    My step grandson has just come back from his 2nd terrible tour in Afghanistan and has lost countless comrades.
    War is hard to justify in any circumstances and the phoney patriotism of that particular hymn fills me with horror, for all of your reasons and more.

  6. Well said Eileen. Thank you.

  7. You are absolutely right. And I hate that 'hymn.'

    love Mags B x

  8. But of course, heavenly things does include truth and justice, and love (pretty sure these things are mentioned in the Bible once or twice as being of God).

    And if you don't sing the hymn at all, you don't get to "another country ... most dear to them that love her..." If we owe those things in any small part to our earthly country, how much more to our heavenly one? "Most dear" trumps all earthly loyalty. Those consumed by earthly patriotism are corrected, rebuked even.

    And we finish the hymn, almost triumphantly, on "peace."

    Reservations about this hymn are natural and understandable, and even correct - but go deeper into it, and I think it has something powerful and positive to offer to the Christian.

    1. "The love that asks no questions" is quite enough for me. The second verse isn't so bad, I'll give you that.

  9. In my preyuf, ie short trousers and fed up with em, we were still getting Nurse Edith Louisa Cavell by the ladlefull, all but on a par with Fox's book of martyrs. Whilst I came to gutfeel, and as an ultramontane-tending catholic, still ratify, that most of fox's examples were on the "richly deserving" end of the spectrum, I could never but appreciate her "patriotism is not enough," bit.For all that in my family too a WWI MIA great uncle, a gassed granfather, on one side, and a shellshocked greatuncle on the other, send traumatic echoes to this day a century on nearly, I still enjoyed and enjoy that Hymn. You may be right in your analysis - It remains wholesomer and , as hymns go, which I hate ANY hymn at mass, more christian than those summarizable as "Oh Christian kid, selflessly, go hug a tree , coz we want keep thoughts off "abortion macht frei""


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