Friday, August 13, 2004

A Bishop Speaks Out

If Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme , writing in his diocesan news letter, sees a moral equivalence between nazi Germany in the thirties and today’s Britain he’s clearly got some difficulty with perspective. It’s the same lack of perspective which saw traditional icons such as the flag being condemned as symbols of racism. As a result the flag became the exclusive property of undemocratic racists. It’s good to see the flag now being reclaimed by democrats of all races within Britain, and it just seems silly to go through all this again with I Vow to Thee my Country. Symbols of nationhood play an important part in binding a people together and it doesn't make society a stronger and healthier place when they are undermined frivolously.

But it's a little more complicated than that. One of my favourite songs is Jerusalem. It’s stirring, benignly patriotic, avoids naked jingoism and calls on the singers to build a better country here in England. It’s a song which resonates with both the political left and the right, and as a song specifically about England makes an excellent ‘English’, rather than ‘British‘, national anthem. (The Scots and Welsh have theirs and there is nothing wrong with us having ours) Yet it’s not really a hymn. It’s theology is highly questionable and it’s not about the Christian God in any orthodox sense. Sung in a stadium it brings tears to my eyes. Sung in church it makes me squirm.

With some reluctance I think Bishop Lowe makes one good point. Modern Britain may be nothing like Nazi Germany, but a church existed in Germany when the Nazis came to power. All to often that church acquiesced with the Nazi state. Even Christians who went on to oppose Hitler with some heroism were compromised before hand, because they had been conditioned to support the state unquestioningly. Bishop Lowe is right to remind patriotic, right of centre, Christians (of whom I’m unashamedly one) that they aren't called to put country before God, although in fairness he should also have pointed out that they are called to give the state the things due to it, which certainly include a high degree of personal loyalty. I’m not convinced that I Vow to Thee my Country does call us to put country before God, just before "all earthly things", but he’s probably right to remind us of the dangers of unquestioning nationalism. He’s just wrong to condemn nationalism unquestioningly.

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