- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

LONDON - A prominent Anglican bishop has denounced the late Princess Diana’s favorite hymn as a “heretical” anthem with racist overtones and notions of nationalism reflecting the rise of Nazism 75 years ago.

“I Vow to Thee, My Country” is one of England’s best-loved works of music, echoing regularly from cathedrals and sports stadiums alike across the land. But the Right Rev. Stephen Lowe, the suffragan bishop of Hulme in Manchester, wants to ban it, at least from churches.

The words to the patriotic hymn were written by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice in 1918 — the year that World War I ended — and set to the music of “Jupiter’s Theme,” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

Bishop Lowe acknowledges the music is “a good tune.” It’s the words that irk him, particularly the first verse, which describes love of country that “stands the test” and that unquestioningly “lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.”

The bishop sees the dark hand of nationalism in unlikely places. He says he is suspicious of “a white-dominated, simple world of Englishness where pounds and not euros, gallons and not liters, reign supreme.”

The lyrics of the hymn nevertheless so enthralled Princess Diana that she had them included in the ceremony when she married Prince Charles in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. Her son, Prince William, asked that the hymn be sung at her funeral 16 years later.

Bishop Lowe sees this verse in a malevolent light, particularly in its description of England as “entire and whole and perfect.” He interprets the first verse as a call for “unquestioning allegiance to what a country does, whether right or wrong.”

Writing in Cruz, the Manchester diocesan newsletter, he said, “I think it is heretical because a Christian’s ultimate responsibility and accountability is to God revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

“I quoted the hymn as one example of my concerns about growing nationalism,” he told reporters. But in the more damning newsletter version, the bishop described the hymn’s popularity as a sign of a “dangerous” rise in English nationalism, which has “parallels with the rise of Nazism.”

“My country right or wrong is not an appropriate sentiment for Christians to uphold,” he said. “While I am proud to be English, it is dangerous for a nation to suggest that our culture is somehow superior to others.”

The hymn has soared in popularity among English fans at sports events such as the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia (which England won) and the Euro 2004 soccer tournament (which England didn’t), as well as at military anniversaries such as the D-Day observances and Remembrance Day (Britain’s version of Veterans Day).

Bishop Lowe says this makes him uneasy: “Any notion of national superiority or fierce independence while pouring scorn on our neighbors is profoundly unchristian and wrong,” he said.

Extending his criticism across the Atlantic, he said, “It is like American culture, where there is this view that America is the land of the free when we know that it is not.

“But there are those in America who … want to impose their understanding, their culture, their way of doing things on everybody else,” Bishop Lowe said. “That is dangerous.”

That was too much for newspaper columnist A.N. Wilson, who wrote in London’s Evening Standard that “most hymns favored by this bishop such as ‘Lord of the Dance’ and ‘Cum Ba Ya’ are devoid of meaning.”

Then he added: “Chuck it, bishop.”

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