“Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”: Nationalism and the Church

I recently participated in a good old-fashioned hymn-sing. Hymns were the primary form of musical worship in my church when I was growing up and have always loved them. It was a special moment for a boy when he could go from singing soprano or alto to tenor or bass. I enjoy contemporary praise choruses as well, but I have a soft spot in my heart for hymns. There is a theological richness in the theology and the musical score. Being in a congregation with all four parts blending harmoniously brings depth to worship, helping one to see that fulfilling ones role as a part (which for me is the bass line) produces something greater than the sum of those parts. Much like the church itself.

The hymnal used at this hymn-sing was not one I was particularly familiar with, so I started flipping though it to see what kind of songs were included, which is my custom in situations like this. Alas, I came to a section in the hymnal titled “National Life.”

The title of this post is “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” which is a Latin phrase that could be loosely translated “The rule of worship is the rule of belief”. I know this in not a perfect translation, but the original saying of St. Prosper of Aquitaine was “legem credendi lex statuat orandi” which literally translates as “the law of prayer determines the law of belief”. But this doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so nicely. The point is that how the church worships reveals (or even determines) what she believes. Worship is prior to doctrine. So what did the hymns in the “National Life” section of this hymnal reveal about what this church believes?

I admit that I started into this section with some trepidation, since I knew this could cause me some trouble. I even went first to the index of hymns to see if any of the standard nationalistic hymns which tend to get me riled up were listed. I couldn’t find anything particularly objectionable in the index, so I dove in. The first hymn was “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, which was a favourite of mine growing up. I know now the circumstances in which it was written, but in my youthful ignorance I came to love the song for the melody and the biblical imagery. I always pictured the armies of Israel encamped around the altar (“I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps; they have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps”), waiting for God to march and deliver them.

The second was “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I’m not American, so I am not as familiar with this song. It’s not really about God at all, so I hesitate to call it a hymn. It is about freedom and liberty, but more in the frontier wilderness sense of freedom. Nature figures prominently, with mountainsides, rocks and rills, woods and crumpled hills and so on. God makes a cameo at the end as the author of liberty, which I take (perhaps uncharitably) to refer to the divine inspiration of the founding documents of the United States, but it could perhaps simply refer to the providential founding of the country as a haven of religious freedom. It also mentions the “noble free” people of the land, which I doubt refers to the free people who lived here before the pilgrims arrived. But more on that later.

It was the next “hymn” that started to get me worked up: “America the Beautiful.” Where the previous song was more an ode to the land, as might be offered by one of the great deist founding fathers or anyone of a spiritualist mind, “America the Beautiful” steps up the nationalism a notch. The pilgrims are no longer simply those who came and rejoiced in the beauty of the wilderness they found, but are those whose “stern, impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat, across the wilderness.” They are “heroes proved in liberating strife.” There is also a growing note of millenialism in the “patriot dream, that sees beyond the years; thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!” The eschatological vision of scripture as applied to the renewal of all creation at the return of Jesus Christ is being applied to the nation. But what of those of us outside America?

And then it appeared. “The Star Spangled Banner.” The “hymn” I checked the index for and did not find appeared at the turn of the page. I went back to the index and it was not listed; not alphabetically and not even under the “National Life” section. (I wonder why – perhaps the arrangers were a bit ashamed to include it?) This is not a hymn. It is not even remotely a Christian song. At least the previous songs included biblical themes or imagery, however distorted. But the national anthem does not. It is a militaristic song that claims the backing of God for the wars of the nation. Why is this in a hymnal? What does this say about what the church believes?

And lest you thing I’m picking on the United States, the very next song was “O Canada,” the Canadian national anthem. It has many of the same references to nature as the earlier American songs, without even the benefit of scriptural themes or references. Even those who are not Christian have recognized the offensiveness of the phrase “our home and native land” when the vast majority of us who sing it are in fact the descendants of those who took this land from those for whom it was truly native. The fact there is a verse added later that refers to the “Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer” does not redeem the whole. This is not a reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, I am a Mennonite for whom church is always prior to state, which is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with national anthems or nationalistic “hymns” as a part of the worship of the church. If we truly believe that the church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” then the worship of any local church, while rooted in its culture and context, should allow for the participation of the whole church.

At this point, I can only assume that God had enough of my growing anger, because the final hymn in this section was “O God of Every Nation.”

O God of every nation,
of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation
with your almighty hand;
where hate and fear divide us
and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us
and heal our strife-torn world.

From search for wealth and power
and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower
destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation
and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation,
eternal God, we pray!

Lord, strengthen all who labor
that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber,
from dread of war’s increase;
when hope and courage falter,
your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter,
your servants undergird.

Keep bright in us the vision
of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division 
give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious
when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious
o’er all the world’s domain.

To me, this song sums up perfectly what the national life of a church should involve. It acknowledges God’s redemptive care over all creation, chastises our desire to control our own destiny through wealth, power and violence (correctly calling this the idolatry that it is), calls for us to work against war and the threat of war, and focuses our vision not on making our nation into the special domain of God but on the eschatological reign of Christ over all the earth. I needed this song.

May this hymn be the lex orandi that determines our lex credendi!