Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 April 2008

English Nationalism and Christianity: The Case of ‘Jerusalem’

It was reported yesterday that the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, has banned the singing of the hymn Jerusalem in the cathedral on the grounds that ‘the words do not praise God and are too nationalistic’, according to ‘senior clergy’. The words of a spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark, as quoted by the article, were: “The Dean of Southwark does not believe that [the hymn] is to the glory of God and it is not therefore used in private memorial services”. Well, I once had a young work colleague who died in a tragic climbing accident, and Jerusalem was sung at his funeral service; and it was a highly moving and appropriate choice for someone who loved the open country and whose life on earth was snuffed out at about the same age as that of Christ.

Before I proceed, let us remind ourselves of those disputed words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The question I would want to ask of the Dean is what is the link, in his mind, between this hymn being supposedly un-Christian (or ‘not to the glory of God’) and its (English) nationalism? Are the two things separate, or is there an implied link: it’s not Christian because it’s an expression of nationalism?

Firstly, I’d have to say, as a Christian myself, that I have had doubts in the past about whether this anthem was truly Christian in spirit. The defence of Jerusalem that has been made against the Dean’s prohibition of it – that it is a hugely popular hymn and the English people’s choice as national anthem (and mine, by the way) – doesn’t of itself make it, or at least the original Blake poem, a celebration of Christian faith. I’ve tended to think of Blake’s vision as being that of a utopian, socialistic ‘New Jerusalem’ built by human effort and a more humane application of technology rather than the New Jerusalem of faith, which for Christians is consummated at the end of time, even though we do have a duty to begin to build it in this life.

But like any great poem, the words are capable of multiple interpretations, and Jerusalem can be seen as a sort of prophetic, genuinely Christian-inspired vision. The metaphor of the ‘Holy Lamb of God’ (authentic Christian reverence there) literally gracing the green mountains and pleasant pastures of England can be viewed as perfectly consistent with the Christian belief that the risen Christ is with us here and now, and that we have a calling to work in the present day for the establishment of his kingdom on earth. That is a truly inspiring vision relevant as much for Blake’s time (fighting against the grim conditions of life for industrial workers) as for the present day when there is still so much horrific exploitation of the poor and of children throughout the world by big business and greed. So while the poem’s concluding call to build “Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land” can indeed be judged as utopian and philosophically materialist (expressing an essentially secular vision of human progress), it can also be seen as a summons to Christians not to ignore the suffering of their brothers and sisters, and to translate their principles into action in defence of the poor and exploited.

So much for the charge that Jerusalem does not glorify God. If this view rests on very shaky foundations, is the poem’s nationalism the real problem – nationalism in general (and English nationalism in particular?) being construed as inconsistent with true Christian faith and worship? There certainly are ways in which the nationalistic tenor of the poem could be seen as problematic from a Christian perspective. The poem and the hymn have been associated with British imperialism. Although, in the present-day context, it is possible and in my view legitimate to dissociate English nationalism from the British imperialism of the past, there’s no doubt that at the time Blake was writing, and for much of the history since then, it’s been impossible to separate these two strands in the English popular imagination and sentiment. The Victorians thought of the Empire as England’s historic mission: to bring essentially English civilisation and English (‘Protestant’) Christian faith to the supposedly heathen and ‘savage’ millions that had not yet heard the Word or sampled the refined joys of the English way of life.

It surely must be these historical associations with imperialism and prejudice that make the ‘English nationalism’ of the hymn questionable in Dean Slee’s eyes. But on the one hand, even though we (the English, British, Christians, the West) no longer view the culture, religions and races of the former colonies of the Empire as inferior, and requiring conversion and elevation to our superior level, these associations of the poem are still the mark of a past when Christian faith and a sense of mission inspired thousands of English men and women to travel the world with a genuine ambition to spread the Gospel and witness to the Christian way of life – however misguided we now think some of their presuppositions and attitudes were.

Similarly, it is this linkage of English nationalism with the worst expressions of British imperialism, bigotry, racism and indeed nationalism, in the distant and more recent past, that makes many liberals – whether Christian or not – shy away from any idea that celebrating Englishness and the English nation as such could possibly be a good thing. But there’s a form of duplicity or, indeed, ‘bad faith’ that is often at work here: England is used as the scapegoat and as the projection for all that is now thought of as bad and unacceptable in historical Britishness. This then strips ‘modern’ Britishness of all the negative associations with the Empire and xenophobic nationalism so that it can become the symbol of all that is now considered to be good and acceptable about . . . about what exactly? Well, about England, Englishness and the legacy of the British Empire, in actual fact: its internationalist, multi-cultural inclusiveness (like the Empire, including peoples from all over the world in the tolerant, law-abiding English British civilisation); its Christian-derived liberal progressivism and egalitarianism; and its continuing sense of itself as a great nation that stands for true values and the vision of a better world that still looks very much like Blake’s Jerusalem.

So, ‘Englishness = bad’ and ‘Britishness = good’. I doubt very much whether Dean Slee would regard the nationalist connotations of the hymn as nearly so objectionable if one substituted the word ‘Britain’ for ‘England’ in the text of the poem: ‘Britain’s pleasant pastures’ and ‘Britain’s green and pleasant land’. Who could object to those words (well, millions of English people who love the hymn, for a start – but it’s a rhetorical question!)? Suddenly, from a celebration of England’s (don’t you mean Britain’s?) nationalist-imperialist past, it becomes something that can evoke an inclusive, ecological Britain where all are equal, including those of ‘lesser’ social classes, religions or races once ruthlessly exploited by the . . . English.

Well, as I say, the poem is capable of multiple interpretations. And even though I’ve put words into Dean Slee’s mouth in attempting to understand his objections to Jerusalem, it does appear to conform to the liberal and, as I would call it, Britological logic whereby Britishness is viewed as inclusive and universal, while Englishness is thought of as exclusive (xenophobic and elitist) and ‘narrow’. Britishness is inclusive, yes; but only on condition that it excludes from itself any association with Englishness – something that is symbolised perfectly by the Dean’s literal exclusion of this archetypally English hymn from his cathedral.

Of course, this is nonsense; but it’s the way the champions of Britishness think. This view of the world involves a completely fallacious splitting up of the previously indissociable English and British identity whereby, as I’ve said, England is made the projection of all that is bad about our history and culture, and Britain is transformed into the natural inheritor of all the best bits of that history and civilisation. Our history, our culture; our Englishness. We English nationalists must resist this systematic denial of the very English history, traditions and collective endeavour that have created the Britain that the Britologists seek to dissociate from England, and from which they wish to evacuate English self-awareness and identity. And while not denying the mistakes and wrongs that English people have perpetrated on other nations and races through imperialism and an overweaning sense of superiority, we must hold on to and espouse as English those values and virtues that we cherish, and which the Britologists would have us believe are exclusively those of modern Britain: exclusive of England and Englishness, that is.

And for me, at least, those values include Christian faith, and a respect for religious faith in general. It seems to me that what is at stake ultimately in the Dean’s banning of a hymn that is at once very Christian in much of its inspiration (as I argued above) and very English is a quite mistaken dissociation of Christian faith from the English national identity. Does it really matter whether Blake’s poem conforms to either Biblical, Catholic or modern liberal-Christian orthodoxy if the great majority of English people experience it as a hymn of Christian hope for a better future for their country and as a celebration of the blessings that God (or simply good fortune) have bestowed on their beautiful land? National sentiment and traditions are inextricably linked with Christian faith in Christian cultures, precisely; and Jerusalem is an expression of just such a national, English Christian culture.

In an era when the survival of England as both a civic nation and as a Christian country is under severe threat, this Church of England Dean’s condemnation of Jerusalem as a non-Christian hymn is one of the most stupid acts of shooting oneself in the foot imaginable! I for one, as an English patriot and as a Christian, will continue to sing it – with greater gusto than ever.

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19 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 6): Vaughan Williams and Elgar

You can forgive Hilary Davan Wetton for choosing to defend the cause of the English composer, Vaughan Williams, in the manner he does in last Friday’s Telegraph. The man makes out a case for celebrating the works of Vaughan Williams, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls this year, as a great, indeed “quintessentially British”, composer. This is a tactic: he wants to shame a government that has not funded any commemorations of Vaughan Williams – not even a postal stamp – by talking up his Britishness, arguing that: “Here is a national emblem from which we can all draw inspiration if we want to try to ‘gather together under the Flag’, as we are urged to do. Not the flag of crude jingoism, or even the exuberant patriotism of Land of Hope and Glory, but a deeply felt, understated sense of what it means to be British”.

Vaughan Williams, then, is more ‘truly British’ even than Elgar (the composer of the tune to Land of Hope and Glory), who qualified for inclusion on the old £20 notes, many of which are still in circulation. Err, sorry to dampen your campaigning zeal, Mr Davan Wetton; but maybe one of the reasons why Vaughan Williams has not yet been lauded by the British state is that he was quintessentially English, not British. A collector of English folk songs (those of southern England, too), not “British folk tunes”, as you write; someone whose music traces its heritage back to the traditions of English – not ‘British’ – renaissance music (‘Britain’ didn’t even exist in the renaissance), and whose musical influences that you name are all traditionally thought of as English: Tallis, Purcell, Holst, Walton and Britten.

By contrast, Wetton does not even include the English composer Elgar, in whose music, according to him, “German influences are clearly audible”, in his list of great British composers. Well, I’ll agree with you there, Mr Davan Wetton, as he of all people is a composer you would tend to think of as quintessentially English; not only because of Land of Hope and Glory but of works such as the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance.

As observed above, it’s Land of Hope and Glory that has earned Elgar his fame as a celebrated British composer – claims which, according to Davan Wetton and a commentator from the review Gramophone they invited on to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning to debate Davan Wetton’s claims with him, are highly exaggerated and unrepresentative. This is because Elgar would have rejected the – err, British – jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, whose words he was not responsible for. And, by the way, those words do not actually mention ‘Britain’, or ‘England’ for that matter. They clearly are a reference to Britain and its empire; but like the musical tradition continued by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the anthem traces Britain’s power and essence back to their earlier and deeper roots in Englishness:

Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

It’s a bit rich, then, that Davan Wetton should not include Elgar in his list of British musical greats – whose German influences he appears to regard as contrary to such a claim – when he explicitly dismisses his endorsement of Vaughan Williams and the fellow members of his British pantheon in the following terms: “This is not an appeal for a shallow ‘Little Englander’ mentality. None of these composers was insular: Holst studied Sanskrit, Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel, Walton adored jazz and Britten was entranced by Gamelan music from Bali”.

OK, I get it: ‘British’ composers are internationalist, not narrow Little Englanders – despite the fact that his list of British composers comprises great English composers. And the English composer Elgar represents such English jingoism, despite the fact that he is generally thought of as more British than his fellows (unfairly, owing to the only semi-British / semi-English patriotism of words he didn’t write) and the fact his influences were just as international as all those other ‘British’ composers.

What a load of old bunkum! They’re all great English composers; and, as such, their influences are both typically English and international: they wouldn’t have the universal, worldwide appeal and musical complexity they do have if they hadn’t been profoundly influenced by great music from around the world. If we’re going to celebrate the great music of our country, let this at least be England when we’re talking about England. And, for that reason, I agree that the government should do more to mark the anniversary of Vaughan Williams: a great figure in English music.

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