Thursday 23 April 2009

For England and St George

As my contribution to St George’s Day, I’ve copied out my old school song —the first time I’ve done so since having to write it out three times by hand in a class detention (for us being noisy) back in the early ‘60s. (Not having your school hymnbook in morning assembly was also a punishable offence, which meant most of us carried the hymnbook in our blazer pockets for our entire school career. I still have mine.)

I have a lot of affection for this song, written by James Edward Geoffrey DeMontmorency (a former Quain Professor of Comparative Law), because it establishes what I think is the basic principle of citizenship, namely ownership of a story (something which I explored here early last year). It is the same thing which drives so many people to take an interest in genealogy — who we think we are is affected by the story of which we feel ourselves to be a part.

This, however, is why I cannot accept the underlying political philosophy of the British National Party, who regard citizenship as essentially an ethnic concept. It is a fundamental biblical principle that citizenship of God’s people is open to anyone who will ‘own the story’. Ruth is characteristic of this (and is, of course, a profound challenge to the concept of exclusivity even on the basis of God’s judgement):

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ru 1:15-16)

According to Deuteronomy 23:3, no Moabite could become part of Israel, yet Ruth was a Moabitess (Ru 1:4). And in case anyone should think the exclusion was itself restricted, in the days of Nehemiah it was still taken to apply to mixed marriages (Neh 13:1). Whatever else this may mean, it surely is a word to those who would draw tight ethnic boundaries around social identity.

The same is true of the Passover regulations regarding non-Israelites, “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land.” (Ex 12:48) The key to joining in the Passover is simply identification with the Lord’s Covenant people. And of course the Passover was itself celebrated as the recapitulation of a story:

In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand. (Ex 13:14-16)

(I wonder, incidentally, whether the Passover is not a significant challenge to those who would deny the penal element of Christ “our Passover” dying on the cross.) The Passover feast made, and makes, every Jew part of the story. But it is not initially restricted to ‘born Jews’, provided the person wishes to embrace the Covenant.

But this is why I cannot accept the idea of a ‘multi-cultural’ nation which has been foisted on us in this country for the last half-century. If a country is to be more than a dormitory — a place where people sleep and work, but to which they feel no sense of belonging — then it must require of its citizens an awareness of and identity with the communal story. And what better way to do that than in song? So here it is, in all its glory — the John Roan School Song:

Here’s to old John Roan, who lived and worked and died
In the mighty days of Cromwell, of Milton, and of Blake*;
We were born in days of passion, we were reared in days of pride,
That gave the sea to England with continents beside;
Is there nothing we can give her for our Founder’s sake?
Ourselves we give to England till John Roan shall wake.
Here’s to old John Road, sing him loud, sing him low,
He it was who placed us on the road that we shall go.

Here in Greenwich once walked England’s deathless dead,
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, here made their music sweet;
Drake and Blake and Nelson in Greenwich broke their bread,
Flamstead, Halley, Airey, the ranging star flocks led;
While Wolfe still dreams among us beside the roaring street,
Of the broad realms of Canada he laid at England’s feet,
Then to old John Roan, sing him loud, sing him fair,
He it was who made us, sing him sweet for his care.

Here’s to those that come hereafter, the lads we shall not see,
The men of generations who will have new foes to fight;
We look forever forward, seaward, landward free;
Yea, in the air and in the depths, wherever men should be,
Our Greenwich men are lighting new beacons in the night,
John Roan’s men, the Roan boys, are building up the light.
Here’s to old John Road, sing him loud, sing him clear.
Sing him round the continents, sing him through the year.

* John Roan died in 1644, Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and John Milton in 1674. William Blake, however, died in 1857, making him an unlikely candidate. I presume this is therefore a reference to Robert Blake, 17th century Parliamentarian and naval hero, who was laid in state in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, following his death at sea in 1657, see also the second verse. Revd John Richardson
23 April 2009

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  1. A very interesting concept, sir. It is one which is part of the American civic creed. When people become American, they may certainly keep the memory of and pride in their countries and languages of origin, but they become something new -- American. They adopt our story, and become part of it, and can celebrate our national history even though their ancestors were elsewhere when the events happened. The same should apply to England, and the UK, but European countries in general seem to have a harder time than Americans do in shedding their ethnicity requirement. This is probably because we are an immigrant nation and have coped with this for many, many more years than the British or other Europeans have.


    (I don't use my surname online, and will give you my reasons if you email me.)

  2. There's a typing error "Road" for "Roan", twice.

  3. Hmmm. Sathnam Sanghera tells of his Wolverhampton Grammar school song in "Empireland", and it has the same bombastic tone. My criticism is that - despite the reference to poets and astronomers - serving England was seen as fighting foreigners and spreading the flag. Serving others in the UK is not mentioned at all.