Is the national Anthem a prayer and should we sing it in church?

Before we leave behind some of the questions that have arisen out of the Jubilee weekend, I’d like to talk about one more thing.  One suggestion made has been that we could at least sing the National Anthem in our church services because it is a prayer. In fact, I’ve seen it argued that this is the best prayer of all because we are asking for the Queen to be saved.  Let’s have a look at the words.

Here it is in full. Normal practice is to sing the first and last verse. Some verses have been added at various times to mark occasions. These include the third verse in this version which I understand was originally part of an alternative version whicf was intended to be more inclusive and less nationalistic.

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall!
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!

Not in this land alone,
But be God’s mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world o’er.

From every latent foe,
From the assassins blow,
God save the Queen!
O’er her thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend,
Our mother, prince, and friend,
God save the Queen!

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour,
Long may she reign!
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen!

What do we make of it, in full context? Is this really a prayer for the Queen’s salvation? Well, whilst an Evangelical Christian may choose to think in those terms whilst singing it, I think we can clearly see that the intent of the words is different.  We employ the word “save” for a specific reason but we are using a word with broader meaning.  Here in the Anthem the focus is on physical preservation. Saving the Queen means delivering her from military enemies, protecting and preserving her physical life, establishing her kingdom.

Indeed, if we were to attempt to treat this anthem literally as a Christian prayer, we’d end up with something rather unwanted because when we are praying for an individual that they would be saved and that they would receive “choicest gifts” we are edging into Prosperity Gospel territory. The anthem expresses a desire for the monarch to experience material success in life, building up riches, seeing off enemies, experiencing long life and good health.

It functions as a national anthem because the assumption in a monarchy is that if the King or Queen prospers, then the whole country benefits. The Queen becomes the personal representative of the country.  There is a sense in which we are all kept safe and prosper in the King or Queen (there’s a doctrinal/Gospel analogy to draw out there). 

So, whilst I might choose to sing the anthem as an expression of patriotic sentiment, hoping for peace, security and prosperity for the country, I think it requires a level of special pleading to suggest this is a great prayer for churches to sing about the Queen and her personal salvation.

Indeed, what we are seeing here is an example of cultural eisegesis.  Exegesis is where we legitimately draw the meaning of something out from its source. We exegete Scripture by correctly interpreting God’s Word to understand its original meaning and intent. However, we also exegete any text when trying to understand it and more broadly we can talk about exegeting culture.  Eisegesis is about reading something into a text so we force fit our own ideas into it and make it mean what we want it to. Just as eisegesis can happen to Scripture, it can also happen to other texts, Shakespeare, historical books and to culture.

I think that whilst conservative evangelicals seek so carefully to avoid eisegesis with Scripture (though not always completely successful) that we are less careful with culture. We can be desperate to read into the words and actions of others positive things that align with our faith.  This seems to arise out of a need to narrowly justify our enjoyment of and engagement with things based on a narrow evangelistic justification.

Yet whilst the call to evangelise is crucial and important, it is not the whole story.  It is okay for us to enjoy the good things of life, aspects of common grace if you like.  I happen to agree with those who think that Queen Elizabeth’s reign as a constitutional monarch has been good and not just for Britain.  I think she may well have been a one off and so I’m not convinced that our longer term future will be with the monarchy in this format -certainly we cannot rely on Charles or William to fulfil the same role (that’s the thing about hereditary systems).  I also think that there is a form of gentle, humble, generous patriotism that is good, as distinct from jingoistic nationalism. 

So, as I’ve said before, I’m perfectly happy for the country to mark a significant landmark in the Queen’s reign. Though, exactly because of the principles we see both in that system of constitutional monarchy and because of the values that the Queen herself seems to live by, such celebrations should not be forced on others. It is possible then for Christians to join in with such celebrations without needing to eisegete unintended meaning into our culture.

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