Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

When politicians swear

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It’s been about twelve years since I last had a fulsome swear.

I do swear
that I will be faithful
and bear true allegiance
to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,
her heirs and successors,
according to law:
So help me God.

All Church of England clergy have to make this Oath of Allegiance on the taking up of most church posts. The same oath is made by MPs at the beginning of the parliamentary term. Our MPs began swearing their new oaths last Wednesday (19 May), which just happens ironically to be the anniversary of the Declaration of the English Commonwealth (1649).

A pile of sacred tomes is deposited beside the government despatch box in the Commons for those who wish to hold something sacred while they swear. An alternative form of the oath that affirms rather than swears is available for those who object on principle to the swearing of oaths. The alternative was originally introduced to allow Quakers, who do not swear oaths, to take seats in Parliament. No Sinn Féin MP has taken their seat as there’d be no way they’d swear allegiance to the British monarchy. Some others cross their fingers, some add ‘and all who sail in her’, as a compromise of taking up their seats as duly elected without taking the forelock tugging too seriously.

Apart from Church of England clergy and MPs, the oath is also demanded from MSPs, AMs, police officers, judges and newly made British citizens. We should honestly expect the clergy to be faithful and compassionate in their ministry, and for elected politicians to serve the electorate, for the police to uphold the law and not abuse their power, for judges to judge equally within the law of the land, and for new citizens to eat fish and chips once a year. Instead, though, we get all of these just to swear to a rich granny and her family that they’re on their side (what is allegiance if it’s not saying ‘I’m on your side’?).

Many things are ridiculous about the monarchy: the titles, the dressing up, the walking backwards, Sarah Ferguson, Charles Windsor’s charities and the principle that some people are better than others. So, it’s a wonder why this oath, this feudal leftover, is the necessary initiation to so many public offices. I expect there are very few Jacobites entering public office to support some pretender across the sea!

The taking up of public office is an important moment when we, the people, should demand a commitment to its responsible exercise. We get none. Instead, we get an empty commitment to the establishment. This is not merely ridiculous, but dangerous. It is anti-democratic, and its lack of demand for personal responsibility and integrity creates a void where values should be. Simply by scrapping the oath for all would be a positive symbolic move, but replacing it with something of value would be better by far.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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