The church-state relationship in England at the present time is something of a dog’s breakfast, the latest stage of a process of de-confessionalisation that began in the 18th century, and which still continues. As an example of absurdity of this relationship, it now seems that the state church will be exempted by law from the legal provision of ‘gay marriage’ for any who desire it. Much of the continued public acceptance of the remains of confessionalism (apart from inertia) is undoubtedly due to the current prestige of the Monarchy, and particularly to the present Monarch, whose example of steadfast leadership, including fulfilling her duties as head of the Church of England, have given her enormous public respect. She is 87 and shows no sign of flagging. With another Monarch may come another day,
The recent funeral of Baroness Thatcher, a state occasion in all but name, conducted in the presence of the Queen, is the latest public expression of such vestigial confessionalism. As part of the service, the hymn (or song, as you will) ‘I vow to thee my country’ was sung, except for the middle verse. There is an almost overwhelming pressure on any politician with sympathy for the Christian religion or who espouses ‘Christian values’ to think of the kingdom of God as identical with the kingdoms served by politics. And many who are not politicians, including of course many bishops of the Church of England, appear to favour the same view. There were efforts made in the press to show that this was Baroness Thatcher's view also.
However, 'I vow to thee my country', chosen by Lady Thatcher, is a fairly clear avowal of the two kingdoms view. Its sentiments run along with those of Charles Wesley's 'Love divine', and with John Bunyan's celebration of pilgrimage, 'Who would true valour see', also chosen by the Lady. There is a kingdom of this world, to the service of which Mrs Thatcher gave most of her life. And there is a kingdom of God, a kingdom that is not of this world, whose king is Jesus, which transcends earthly politics, and which is being formed gradually, quietly, gently. This is the 'new creation' of Wesley's hymn - pure, spotless, and heavenly - which one day will be finished by the church's almighty creator and redeemer.
While the first two verses of 'I vow to thee my country' are strongly patriotic, almost Jingoistic, in tone, the last verse, with its reference to ‘another country', and with its echoes of the 'better country' of Hebrews 11.16, in contrast to the 'all earthly things' of the opening line of the hymn, strikes a different note. Especially the last line, a paraphrase of part of Proverbs 3, is a clear affirmation of that other kingdom, a kingdom which has foundations, whose maker and builder is God.
Whatever the chaotic condition of church-state relations in England at present, it is good to have this affirmation of the two kingdoms, the historic view both of the Church of England and of English Dissent.
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.