Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

An English anthem?


And did those feet in ancient time

The preface to Blake's 'Milton, a Poem', containing 'And did those feet in ancient time', as coloured by Blake.

Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has been watching the footie, and he wants a debate on an English national anthem. It seems he’s got a little annoyed at the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ for the England football team at the World Cup in South Africa.

First off, anthems are rather silly things. Their lyrics are often little more than a admixture of jingoism and romanticist nonsense. However, the things of anthems and flags are important symbols of belonging, as long as we recognise they are the symbols and window-dressing of our identity and not its substance.

Second off, I abhor our current paean to Mrs Windsor because she doesn’t even begin to represent what this country means to most of us. The tune and lyrics are both bad: scrap it along with the monarchy! It also has the problem of having some official status in most Commonwealth realms (those countries that inexplicably keep Mrs Windsor as head of state). New Zealanders, for instance, would have the right to complain that the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ by British or English sporting teams that the anthem is just as much theirs — ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of New Zealand, alongside the more common ‘God Defend New Zealand’. In spite of my being a Christian, I recognise that ‘God Save the Queen’ bears a certain theological element that is either inappropriate or questionable to a significant number of citizens — being addressed to God, it is a prayer, and can, historically, be said to be a Christian, even Church of England, prayer.

Where bits of the UK field separate national teams, Wales has established the excellent ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’, Scotland ribs the Auld Enemy with ‘Flower of Scotland’ and even Northern Ireland seems happily united behind ‘Londonderry Air’ (albeit not all pronounce the ‘London’ bit of the title). The English can feel rightly narked that we don’t get a special little song of our own. To use a linguistic term, England often goes for the ‘unmarked’ portion of the UK, often indistinguishable from the larger unit.

Increasingly, ‘Jerusalem’ (‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?’) has filled the need for an England anthem. It has the fascinating poetry of William Blake and the stirring music of Hubert Parry, and far surpasses the jingoistic romps of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (when we ruled the waves we made others slaves) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (‘Mother of the Free’ my ass! And do we want to revive the imperialistic notion of our ‘bounds’ being set ‘wider still and wider’?). ‘I vow to thee, my country’ has the advantage of Gustav Holst’s great tune, but the truly problematic blending of language of religious and national sacrifice. More England sporting teams are being identified by ‘Jerusalem’ now. The anthem, unlike the others, also has a solidly radical history, beside its Blake lyrics, it was the protest song of the Suffragists, when building Jerusalem meant getting votes for women. It was referenced by Clem Atlee in the slogan of building ‘a new Jerusalem’ in the 1945 general election in which the British people ousted Winston Churchill in favour of the Labour Party’s fulfilled promise of a National Health Service and Social Security. Although its lyrics use religious imagery, albeit Blake’s unique take on religion, it is not addressed to God, and not technically a prayer or hymn. However, I can see that its language (‘Holy Lamb of God’) would still make it unacceptable for many who are not Christian.

On his album Internationale, Billy Bragg recorded a version of ‘Jerusalem’ alongside a British version of the Woody Guthrie’s folk song ‘This Land is your Land’ with the lyrics:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From the coast of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands,
From the sacred forests to the holy islands.
This land was made for you and me.

The words ‘Scottish Highlands’ could easily be replaced with ‘Pennine uplands’ to Anglicise the song. I quite like its democratic approach to this land, its ownership and its mythical meanings.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

7 thoughts on “An English anthem?

  1. While I agree with most of the rest of your “-isms” listed on the blog, I don’t see the merit in your professed republicanism, which seems rather naive to me. Monarchies are not the enemies of progress of social liberalism, at least, certainly not where I live, in Scandinavia.

    In fact, one could argue that the reason that Scandinavia and the Low Countries are so socially liberal and progressive is precisely because their monarchies supply enough sense of national continuity and identity (characteristics generally agreed to be in need of more celebration in Britain) to allow for their populations to feel cohesive and relaxed enough to face other social challenges. I am proud that Britain should belong to the club of progressive North European monarchies, rather than the group of republics such as Greece, Italy or the Eastern European nations with some way to travel in the direction of progress towards equality for women, gay people, ethnic minorities, etc. I also think the Queen stands for and encourages social involvement and community spirit in ways that the UK is otherwise in danger of losing, and which certainly would not miraculously appear were she not in post, and for that, she deserves respect.

    And the reference to “Mrs Windsor” (to whom you have sworn allegiance, if you are a C of E priest) is churlish, worthy only of the level of the Gerry Adams view of Britain, I’m afraid. I hope you’re not trying too hard to be hip.

    Apart from comments about the monarchy, though, keep up the good work.

    • Fr Mark, thank you for your response. I would rather prefer you not to think of me as naive and churlish. As the greatest English republican Thomas Paine wrote ‘a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom’. If we were organising a society from first principles — on a desert island or on a new planet — we would not think it a suitable constitution to name one member of our new society ruler for life with hereditary succession, even if this ruler were more a symbol than an active ruler. We would think such a suggestion, in such a situation, against our best principles of fairness and equality. The only reason why many do not consider our extant monarchy an outrage to our best principles is tradition; hence the quote from Paine.

      You might well retort that we are not starting from scratch in Britain with our extant monarchy. However, the fact that we would not choose to start from scratch with a monarchy deprives the institution of any philosophical legitimacy. At best we can only accept monarchy as status quo.

      Monarchy enshrines the concept than some people are naturally better people than others. The concept that a few deserve deference and respect by result of their birth is abhorrent, and that’s why she’s Mrs Windsor. Superficially, the Bible has stories about kings, but more deeply we find there a theology of the equality of all human beings before God.

      Within the British constitution we have a problem with unaccountable power. The authority of the Crown is symbolically held by the monarch, but most of its political power is exercised by the prime minister. The royal prerogative exercised by prime ministers allows them to make treaties, declare war, appoint ministers and remove them from office, conduct diplomacy, appoint peers and claim public interest immunity among other things. In this prime ministers are not responsible to parliament, nor are they responsible to the monarch, who has no power to demand anything of a prime minister. Thus, the monarchy in our constitution leaves a power vacuum into which prime ministers have accrued unaccountable and almost autocratic power. In Italy, the elected president is symbolic head of state, yet has regularly vetoed Berlusconi’s emergency orders (quick, temporary laws), having the democratic mandate and constitutional responsibility to prevent bad legislation and abuse of prime-ministerial power.

      The political geography of monarchies you present is rather choice. It is rather simplistic to suggest that monarchism is the cause for the socially liberal and progressive societies of Scandinavia and the Low Countries. The Belgian Kingdom is ready to split in two; Sweden has seen widespread criticism and cynicism about the lavish recent royal wedding. Neither Thailand’s current political situation, nor the tough moralism of Arabian monarchies commend them. When you list republics, you seem to forget that France, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Ireland and the US are all stable republics with various claims to progressiveness.

      The oath of allegiance is pretty pointless for clergy coming into new appointments: there are better and more meaningful promises we could make. The history of the oath and its place in church-state relations is not an honourable one. I believe that Anglicanism is more than allegiance to a monarch and the establishment of the church. And if that’s true for the majority of Anglicans beyond the Church of England, why can it not also be true within it?

      • But Gareth, don’t knock tradition per se: the illogicality of our British heritage is part of what makes the country special. Every society has, necessarily, some illogical aspects which reflect its history and culture: that’s not a problem, but a strength. Only hardened socialists ever seemed unable to appreciate this – and look at the terrible mess they created in Europe in the 20th c!

        You cite France, whose President is currently being very much criticised for becoming more and more like Berlusconi in trying to control the media – have you read about the current Le Monde ownership scandal, in which the President tried to browbeat the paper into not accepting ownership bids from people of whom he disapproved; you cite Germany, Switzerland and Finland, and how many people even know the names of their presidents?; and, as for Ireland, Irish Unionists who make up a million of the people on the island, would not see the president or the idea of the republic as an attraction…

        Whereas, in Italy, there is an inherently unstable republic veering towards a Mussolini-like system once more; and in Spain, a monarchy which has enabled a smooth transition to democracy, a 50% female cabinet (in Spain, of all countries, the home of machismo!) and same-sex marriage. I take issue with your view of Belgium (having lived there): Belgians generally say that the only thing holding the country together in the King. I think it is only the British press which discussed the cost of the Swedish Crown Princess’s wedding – she is wildly popular in Sweden, in so far as Swedes get wild about anything. All the European monarchs have approval ratings from their individual populations of in the region of 75-80% – far higher than any politicians/presidents ever get – so it’s hardly a problem issue (given all the others you might choose to vex yourself about), is it?

        Do you see my point, which is that there is no simple prima facie case for saying that, in Europe, monarchy is at all a brake on social progress? So, yes, I do think it naive to make the sweeping assumption that monarchy is necessarily socially backward – the evidence in Europe simply does not support that theory. The most socially progressive European nations are the North European monarchies & Spain.

        And I do think that in Britain there is a big problem with this culture of fashionable endless carping and envy, which results in a lessening of the community ties which are necessary in a healthy society, and which the Queen does so much to maintain. So your reference to “Mrs Windsor” is churlish and disrespectful: do you refuse to use all people’s titles merely on the basis of whether you approve of them or not (as Quakers, not Anglicans, used to do)? Anglican Bishops, for example, certainly have no mandate from anyone (except the monarch, oddly): do you refer to them in the same way, I wonder? Do you call the Pope Mr Ratzinger and the Archbishop of Westminster Mr Nichols? No, of course not, as it would be offensive and disrespectful, surely.

  2. Well, as an Anglican, I have to have some sense of the place of tradition. However, I don’t support tradition for tradition’s sake, which would seem theologically negligent in a faith context. You seem left with an it’s-illogical-but-it’s-ours defence of the monarchy, which seems a little slim. I believe that government and the stuff of state should be reflective of our best ideals and values. Equality of human dignity, no one being above the rule of law and the democratic accountability of all power are broadly accepted principles of liberal democracy that many believe we should aspire to. Argue against that if you will, but it is clear that monarchy, however ‘constitutional’ we make it, does not work within these principles.

    We have had ongoing, slow reform of the House of Lords, reflecting our search for a principled way of doing legislation. It is now agreed that one should not legislate on account of a hereditary right, and the debate is down to a mixture of appointed ‘experts’ and/or elected ‘representatives’. There is no reason why we cannot apply the same argument to the role of head of state, albeit we are daunted by some monarchical mystique to be unable to see that the same arguments may well apply.

    Yes, it is possible to have a progressive society in spite of a monarchy, but it doesn’t figure that a monarchy makes for a progressive society any more than having Wayne Rooney or David Beckham in a team makes it a World Cup winner: as John Barnes has written, teams win games not players.

    I believe in the equality of human dignity. I believe exalted titles can work against this, and there is the possibility that this is part of our Gospel tradition. I am not a Quaker, no, but they have a point. My bishops deserve a certain respect from me because we are united in a common ministry for which they should bear the greater responsibility. And naturally, there should be a reasonable limit to this respect. That a monarch should deserve particular respect or dignity would validate the hereditary principle, that some people have inherently greater dignity. Mark that I am not using disrespectful language concerning Mrs Windsor, but the norm of respect in our society. That you consider this disrespectful suggests that she inherently deserves greater respect due entirely to her birth. The others you mention have earned a certain respect for their position achieved through a dedicated career. Even having respect for the pope doesn’t suggest that he was born into a greater dignity than the child next door.

  3. Gareth, the Pope is an absolute monarch, whom no ordinary Catholics have any say in appointing, and whom they cannot remove: surely you should be insisting on him being plain Mr (or Dr) Ratzinger? Likewise, RC bishops are appointed in the most top-down way imaginable, so you should surely refer to the Archbishop of Westminster as Mr Nichols: I hope you always refer to Queen Margrethe here in Denmark as Mrs Laborde de Montpezat (which would be highly offensive to a Dane, I can assure you). Your bishop may work with you, but he (and it is always he) claims to represent & take part in governing the Church of England, and yet has not been elected by any of its members: it’s hard to think of a system less deserving of respect.

    The monarch of the UK is not above the law, as you state: the histories of Charles I and James II make this clear. And if we hadn’t had the Queen these last few decades, we would doubtless have had President Thatcher followed by President Blair (which is the sort of divisive situation the French and the Americans always end up with). “It’s illogical but it’s ours” seems to me a perfectly valid approach to the monarchy: it is, after all, the only way to account for the Church of England’s continued existence, n’est-ce pas?

    I think that excessive deference is no longer a problem in British society, but rather lack of respect and politeness are, something which is very obvious when revisiting the UK from abroad.

    • I’m just back from a little vacation, so I apologize for the tardy response.

      All of this argument seems to boil down to what people call people. An egalitarian society should expect equal respect to equal individuals. Are you suggesting that some people are more worthy of respect due to the accidence of birth or secret appointment? Putting it the other way round: the media often portrays the poorest or weakest members of society with less respect. The unemployed, refugees, immigrants, benefit claimants, criminals and those struggling to make ends meet are often seen as somewhat less equal. It is clear to me that a Christian Gospel should not discriminate against people in such a way, and I would add that the putting down of so many people is part of an inegalitarian society that also expects undue deference to a few rich, powerful people.

      It is true that mediaeval models of the episcopate tend to be somewhat monarchical, and that’s why moderate Parliamentarians advocated Presbyterianism. Some early-church and modern understandings of the episcopate are more conciliar. Even so, bishops reach their position after a career in the church. Yes, there are still remnants of the Old Boys’ Club, and the appointments procedures are not open and clear. Secular monarchs are born to their positions. I find it easier to respect someone who has worked their way to where they are.

      The monarch is above the law. She may not be arrested, tried in any court, and pays taxes as she chooses. Historically, politicians have forced monarchs to submit to political will, yet there is no constitutional process for this. If we had an elected head of state, separate from the prime minister, we would have whoever we elect. Monarchist repeatedly make the argument that we would get President So-and-so, whichever politician they think least desirable, but the point missed is that we would get whichever candidate we elect, and we could put in place a constitution to broaden out nominations beyond political parties. A non-executive head of state has the power to hold the government to account and block/delay problematic legislation, but doesn’t make government policy. Of course, a political constitution is only as strong as the civil society it represents.

      Den Republikanske Grundlovsbevægelse ( advocates a republican constitution in Denmark. And there are many Danes, not necessarily republicans, who dislike the place of the Danish Church in the bosom of the state.

  4. GSTQ is an appalling dirge but its touted replacements are not much better especially Jerusalem with its weird words and melancholy tune, perfect for the superannuated brass band of a closed colliery.
    If ever the field is widened to include new songs, especially if a prize is offered, please email me!
    I have a contender. Years ago I tried to interest TV companies to run a contest with celebrity judges of old and new songs, but none was interested.

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