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Another Country

November 10, 2015
It is after all, November 11th, ‘Armistice Day’, which reminds me of the hymn “I Vow to Thee my Country” – which I was recently exposed to again.  ‘Tis the season.  In some places.  Now the hymn itself of course reminds me of the movie Another Country about pre-war public school betrayal and radicalisation starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth.  Everett stars as Guy Bennett (transparently Guy Burgess) and Colin Firth appears as the official school Marxist.  Indeed, the last line of Another Country is playfully referenced by Colin Firth in the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  
But the hymn floats through the film and it’s been the hymn that troubles me.


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.


Now clearly the obvious point of this hymn is supposed to be that one owes allegiance to two countries – a political and a spiritual – and that these two allegiances compatible.

Only they’re not.

I mean nobody will defend the concept of dual nationality more passionately than I.  I am, after all, in the middle of a long-standing conversation with about three and a half different nations each of which has a different sort of claim on me.

But these two countries – the ones in the hymn – are incompatible.  The second verse is lovely.  If I were picking from a brochure of extra nationalities then “Another Country”, as described in the second verse, looks very desirable.  Its concluding sentiment is “peace”.  It’s a gentle place with no army and no discernible royal family

The country described in the first verse seems terrifying.  It demands unquestioning obedience.  It makes a habit and a virtue out of sacrificing its brightest and best on an altar is some kind of grisly ritual.  A totalitarian thanatocracy rules Verse One.  A peace loving world of gentleness rules Verse Two.  This hymn feels like a Waffen SS marching song stapled to John Lennon’s Imagine.  You cannot pledge allegiance to these two jurisdictions.  The only thing that connects them is that the country in verse one is likely to invade and subjugate the country in verse two.

Perhaps it’s OK to sing this hymn if you sing verse one softly and verse two loudly.  Or perhaps if you make crossies during the first verse and put a sarcastic look on your face.  Because anybody with a spiritual investment in verse two has a real duty to defeat the bloodthirsty life-negating tyranny represented by verse one.

Incidentally, since setting these musings in order I’ve discovered that a number of prominent Anglican clerics agree with me about the horrible first verse and want it gone.

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