Last Night of The Proms and the annual patriotic hymns controversy

It’s that time of year again when we get the annual silly season story about whether the patriotic songs (Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia) are going to be removed from The Last Night of The Proms.

Well as someone whose interest in classical music is stuck firmly at the popular end of the spectrum I do like Elgar and prefer his music to the sort of stuff I am meant to appreciate in order to demonstrate that I am cultured.  If you had asked me 20 years ago what my views were, I would have defended keeping these songs in as the only bits of The Proms worth listening to.  Indeed, I would still be inclined to say that if people want to listen to and sing along to them then the BBC would do well not to censor them out.

However, I wonder whether these pieces of music are really the sort of thing that Christians should be singing along to.  Have a look at the lyrics.  First of all, here are the words to Land of Hope and Glory:

Land of hope and glory, mother of the free
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet

This is a hymn of praise to a country.  The desire is expressed to find ways in which to  extol it and its citizens.  The response is for the boundaries of the country to be wider and the country to be mightier and more powerful.

Meanwhile, here are the words to Rule Britannia. The chorus is well known:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

It is worth remembering that modern Britain includes many whose ancestors were bought and sold as slaves, not to mention the victims of modern day slavery.  The verses themselves are primarily a protest against tyranny and an expression that Britain will be free from that tyranny.

When Britain first, at heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And Guardian Angels sang this strain:

The nations not so blest as thee
Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish great and free:
The dread and envy of them all.

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful from each foreign stroke,
As the loud blast that tears the skies
Serves but to root thy native oak.

Note first the attempt to create a national origins myth.  Note second that this concept of freedom is wrapped up in national identity as Britain is compared favourably against other nations with once again the hope that this particular country will rise to greater and greater power.

Now, stop and compare those songs to one other example of a patriotic hymn, “I vow to thee my country.” That hymn starts with a patriotic commitment to love and serve one’s 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.

Whether or not you agree with the idea of unquestioning love for your country which starts to sound a little like “my country right or wrong” you will notice an overall change in tone. This is not about glorying in some mythical story of the country’s origins and its right to rule. Indeed the thing about “my country right or wrong” is that it tacitly acknowledges that my country and my culture can be wrong.

Furthermore, the hymn does not stop there but goes on to say:

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.

Do you see there the shift from earthly kingdoms to the heavenly kingdom where our true loyalty should lie? This is the point. For the believer, our concern should not be with the success or failure of earthly kingdoms and republics. We know that there is only one place where true freedom is found and that is in Christ. Therefore, it is his kingdom that we seek to see grow, wider and wider, mightier and mightier.

2 thoughts on “Last Night of The Proms and the annual patriotic hymns controversy

  1. We have very few times throughout the year when the nation as a whole is able to enjoy a good party which is what the last night of the proms is. We have days when we remember great events but these are usually solemn occasions whereas most countries have great celebratory events affirming their national identity. Anyone who has watched the LNOTP will notice that the crowd in the pit will be multinational and, indeed, multiracial. People are just enjoying themselves and the traditional music. I love i vow to thee my country and Jerusalem but they are not as rousing as RB (nobody who sings it believes in it to my knowledge) or LOHAG. If we are to be controlled by groups who have no interest in an event (anyone who objects to the LNOTP would not watch or take part) like i would not want to go to or listen to grime or rap with the offensive lyrics including murder, rape, violence, drug usage, abuse of women etc etc but it is still played and worshipped by many including the BBC. Save some traditions and tell this Finnish conductor to come on another day if she hates it so much.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I suspect that (as I suggest in the intro) given this has been an annual controversy for the past 20-30 years (almost a tradition itself) that it’s part of the annual publicity. I’m not convinced either that the event is the big unifying national party. As you mention, the crowd is international but I would gently suggest that it does not filter through the classes. Indeed, your point that people can choose not to watch it reminds us that this is not a whole nation event after all. I don’t know if you have faith or not but primarily the article was aimed at asking Christians to think about what they sing. I believe we have a better hope than some jolly patriotic singalongs.

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