Monday, 13 November 2017

Trying to choose appropriate
hymns for Remembrance Sunday

The ruins of Mount Trenchard Church … the churchyard is the burial place of generation of the Spring Rice family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The hymns for the Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Castletown and Rathkeale yesterday [12 November 2017]. ‘They included Abide with me by Henry Francis Lyte; Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, by William Williams; Be still, my soul, to a well-known tune by Sibelius; and Lord for the years by Timothy Dudley-Smith.

One hymn that was not included was I Vow to Thee, My Country, based on a poem by Cecil Spring Rice, who had deep family roots in this group of parishes. The hymn is not in the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal, although it was sung last night on Songs of Praise from Saint Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen.

During the BBC broadcast, I noticed a number of colleagues and former students, including the Dean, Very Revd Kenny Hall, the Cathedral curate, the Revd Chris Mac Bruithin, and the Revd Jim Caldwell, now an army chaplain.

The words of the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country find their origins in a poem written around 1908-1912 by the diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice, and this poem became a hymn in 1921 when his words were adapted and set to music by Gustav Holst.

Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice (1859-1918), best-known as the author of this hymn, was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. But, while he was born in London and brought up in England, throughout his life he maintained his strong family links with Ireland.

He was born into a well-known Co Limerick family. He father was the diplomat Charles William Thomas Spring Rice. His grandfather was the Whig politician and former cabinet minister Thomas Spring Rice, 1st Baron Monteagle of Brandon, who lived at Mount Trenchard, near Foynes, Co Limerick, and who is commemorated in landmark public monument in the People’s Park, Limerick. The hymn-writer was also a great-grandson of Edmund Pery, 1st Earl of Limerick.

One of his closest political friends was the Irish nationalist John Dillon. His unwavering sense of duty as a diplomat came despite the very public espousal of nationalist causes by his first cousin and her involvement in the Howth gunrunning.

Spring Rice got to know Theodore Roosevelt on a trans-Atlantic crossing from New York in 1886. The two men quickly became close friends so that later Spring Rice was Roosevelt’s best man when he married Edith Carow, and Roosevelt in turn was the godfather of Spring Rice’s son in 1908.

Because Spring Rice was a supporter of the Liberal Party and known for his sympathies with the Irish Home Rule movement, he was sacked from the Foreign Office in 1886 when the Conservatives came to power and moved to the diplomatic service.

In 1908, he was posted to the British embassy in Stockholm, and in 1912 he was appointed the British Ambassador in Washington. In 1916, he constantly sought a reprieve for Sir Roger Casement, citing the danger of protests from Irish Americans, but he also advised political and religious leaders of Casement’s sexuality and the existence of the ‘Black Diaries.’

His first cousin, Mary Ellen Spring Rice (1880-1924), who was born in London and brought up at Mount Trenchard, hosted many nationalist and Irish language meetings at her home outside Foynes, and was a close friend of Douglas Hyde. In 1913-1914, she was actively involved in the Howth gun-running, and was a member of the crew of the Asgard.

In Washington, Cecil Spring Rice influenced President Woodrow Wilson and his administration to abandon neutrality 100 years ago and to enter World War I against Germany. However, soon after the US entered the war, he was abruptly recalled to London in January 1918, following a disagreement with Lord Northcliffe, the head of the British war mission to America. On his way back, he died on 14 February 1918 while he was staying with his wife’s cousin in Ottawa. He was buried there in Beechwood Cemetery.

Spring Rice was to be offered a peerage upon his return to London, but he died before the honour could be proposed. Later, the British government publicly recognised his extraordinary contribution to the war effort, including his success in getting the US to join the Allies in World War I.

Cecil Spring Rice originally titled his poem Urbs Dei (‘The City of God’) or The Two Fatherlands. In this poem, he describes how a Christian owes loyalties to both the homeland and the heavenly kingdom.

As he was leaving the US in January 1918, he rewrote and renamed Urbs Dei, significantly altering the first verse to concentrate on the themes of love and sacrifice rather than ‘the noise of battle’ and ‘the thunder of her guns.’ This gives the poem a more sombre tone in view of the dreadful loss of life suffered in World War I.

According to his granddaughter, the rewritten verse of 1918 was never intended to appear alongside the first verse of the original poem, but was to replace it. The text of the original poem was sent by Spring Rice to William Jennings Bryan in a letter shortly before his death in February 1918.

The poem was set to music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), using a tune adapted from the section Jupiter in his suite The Planets to fit the words of the poem. It was performed as a unison song with orchestra in the early 1920s, and it was finally published as a hymn in Songs of Praise in 1926.

The version in that edition of Songs of Praise consists only of the two verses in the 1918 version:

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.

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.


The king in the second verse is God; the final line of the second verse is based on Proverbs 3: 17, ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace,’ in which the feminine pronoun refers to Wisdom.

The original first verse of Spring Rice’s poem Urbs Dei, which was never set to music, reads:

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.


The tune was then called Thaxted, after the Essex village near Saffron Walden where Holst lived for many years and was the church organist. At the time (1910-1942), the Vicar of Thaxted was Conrad Noel (1869-1942), a friend of Vaughan Williams’s collaborator, Canon Percy Dearmer. Conrad Noel was known as the ‘Red Vicar’ because of his active Christian Socialism, and in Saint John’s Church in Thaxted he hung the red flag and the flag of Sinn Féin alongside the flag of Saint George.

The editor of the 1926 edition of Songs of Praise was Holst’s close friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, and this friendship may have provided the stimulus for Holst’s co-operation in producing the hymn.

From 1926 on, the hymn was a common feature at Remembrance Day services and ceremonies. It was sung at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. Princess Diana requested it at her wedding in 1981, and it was sung at her funeral in 1997. It was also sung at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013.

However, there are divided opinion about the suitability of this hymn. The General Synod of the Church of Ireland decided against including it in the Church Hymnal (5th edition) in 2000.

In August 2004, Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hulme criticised the hymn in Crux, the Manchester diocesan newspaper, calling it ‘heretical.’ The Guardian reported him saying he would not sing the hymn or lead a service that included it, ‘despite the good tune.’

In the diocesan newsletter, Bishop Lowe expressed unease about growing English nationalism, which he said was stoked by football fervour, and ‘a wish for a white-dominated simple world of Englishness.’ He urged clergy to think ‘long and hard’ about singing the hymn because its lyrics proclaimed love for country ‘which asks no question.’

According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Bishop Lowe claimed the rise in English nationalism had parallels ‘with the rise of Nazism.’ Later, however, he told Sky News that he had misreported when the Telegraph said he had called for the hymn to be banned.

Writing in Crux, he said ‘I will not sing [it] ... I think it is heretical, because a Christian’s ultimate responsibility is to God as revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And this is where my unease is focused.’ Bishop Lowe said at the time that he was ‘very uneasy’ about growing nationalism at the time of a ‘vicious anti-European campaign,’ the rise of Ukip, and xenophobic attitudes towards other countries in the British tabloid press.

Some years later, the Revd Gordon Giles suggested the lyrics could be rewritten because they seem obscene to many. Writing in the Church Times, he said that ‘in post-colonial Britain’ the words come ‘across as patronising and unjust. Associating duty to King and Empire with a divine call to kill people and surrender one’s own life is a theologically inept reading of Jesus’ teaching.’

He asked at the time: ‘Should we, undaunted, make the sacrifice of our sons and daughters, laying their lives on the altar in wars that we might struggle to call as holy or just? These are real questions for those who go, or see their loved ones go, to fight in arenas of conflict today.’

With Colonel Edward Buckingham on Remembrance Sunday in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

No comments: