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.

Blog at WordPress.com.