Thursday, 25 November 2010

Oaths & allegiance

I’m an almost cradle Anglican who grew up in a vicarage and was ordained a Church of England priest over twenty years ago. To be honest it’s all I’ve really known, though I did have a brief and important dalliance with a home group of the Baptist church down the road during my teens. There are many things I admire about the Church of England and Anglicanism, but if I’m honest there was ever only going to be one denomination where I’d end up a minister, as much out of familiarity as out of firm conviction.

I never really had to think that hard about what being ordained into the established church involved. I can’t remember a single lecture at vicar school about the oaths I was going to take before the bishop at my ordination. When I had to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen, it was with the same roll of the eyes that some colleagues reserved for awkward things like the historic formularies of the Church of England. I never had a problem with the 39 Articles but I’ve always struggled with the monarchy bit. I don’t know what it is really, probably just some quaint notions about what I think democracy is.
Nevertheless, I was content to swear the Oath of Allegiance and say:
I, David Philip Ritchie, 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.
I didn’t even have to cross my fingers, although my dad, who was present at the time,  glared at me as I let out a little sigh.

Then on Tuesday I found myself in discussion with a friend over the tribulations of the Bishop of Willesden. +Pete Broadbent had made some unguarded comments on Facebook about the Royal Family in general and the forthcoming  wedding of William and Kate in particular. He also revealed his republican sympathies. The main target of his comments, however, were the media and their coverage of the issue and not surprisingly the Daily Mail took it upon itself to splash all this across its pages in righteous (sic) indignation. Some asked how +Pete could be a bishop and keep the Oath of Allegiance if he was a republican. Despite a full and, I thought, gracious apology from +Pete, the Bishop of London felt he had to ask +Pete  to withdraw from public ministry, though no one seems sure what that means.

I confess I didn’t see what the big deal was and felt the responses to +Pete’s ill judged comments were completely out of proportion to the offence. Yet, for my friend it was a big deal because the Oath of Allegiance does really mean what it says it means. My friend had been an ordained minister in a non-conformist church and when he became an Anglican and considered ordination in the Church of England he had to think through very carefully whether he was prepared to make the oaths required of him. It wasn’t just a switch of denomination, there were ecclesial, theological and political consequences to the decision. Consequences my friend had to wrestle with long and hard before offering for ordination.

The way my friend put it was this: If the English Civil War were taking place today, those who have sworn the Oath of Allegiance are saying they are with the Crown and not Cromwell. Put like that it does seem a much bigger deal. Of course we aren’t facing that situation but it does highlight issues that I never considered to be important as a young ordinand back in the 1980s. So I’m going to have to do a bit more thinking on this one.

One last comment. I have tremendous respect for most of the bishops I have known and under whose ministry I have served. They have been Godly people striving tirelessly, often at great personal cost, for the Gospel. Some commentators have pointed out that other bishops have said things much more contentious than +Pete and not been disciplined in any way. I have to say the examples of bishops and comments they cite do seem rather selective and may reflect something of the commentators’ own position on controversial issues. How come these lists don’t include those bishops who have made a career out of denying just about  every line in the Creeds? What about the hypocrisy of those bishops who hold one position in public on matters of ethics and morality, while embracing or endorsing a contradictory position in private? What about those who have demonstrated high levels of incompetence in office, with very damaging consequences for those in their charge? As far as I am aware, not one of them was required to withdraw from public ministry and some were preferred for higher office. The lesson to me seems clear; you can say and do just about anything but disrespect the Royal Family and you are toast.


Jonathan Evens said...

Phil, your final point is what I was saying in my post. I wasn't concerned in that post with the rights and wrongs of what the other Bishops had said (or what other Bishops not mentioned in my post had said), simply they had made contentious and sometimes insulting statements without official sanction but as soon as the Royal Family are in the frame there is immediate sanction.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks Jonathan, I think we are in full agreement on that point.

Tim Chesterton said...

Well said, Phil. As a foreigner and a priest in a non-established Anglican Church, this stands out like a sore thumb to me - the fact that you can apparently get away with all manner of things except criticising the Royal family.

UKViewer said...

I took the Oath of Allegiance when I joined the Army and later when I joined the TA. Subsequently, I administered it with many recruits joining.

It was very real to us. Military Discipline is based on self discipline, but the foundation of that is loyalty and integrity in serving the country and the Queen as Supreme Commander in Chief.

I am unsure of the historic perspective for Priests and Bishops having to swear the Oath of Allegiance, I take it that it is connected with loyalty to the Queen as head of the church, but it appears a little unnecessary, perhaps dis-establishment would free the church from that, although I am not a great fan of it.

As a Londoner (although migrated to Kent) I can actually feel that +Peter has been harshly treated, but I would not have expected anything else from +London. I read the agreement between the Bishop of London and the Area Bishops on Bishop Burnham's website, and if is a piece of official speak, which ties the hands of the Bishops quite tightly.

+Peter might have used intemperate language, he might have chosen and framed his comments better, but he has the right to free speech, unfortunately, while he is in a representative, pastoral position, his words will be associated with the church. He should have taken more care, perhaps might have been incensed about the situation and proverbially let his mouth run, before his brain was engaged. So what? Many others including the ABC have said things taken out of context, and not been suspended (or barred from Public Ministry).

Sue D said...

The proverbial storm in a teacup. I think the response to the Bishop's remarks was disproportionate - but he did need to learn that absolutely nothing on the internet is ever private.
And the right to free speech - I don't think any of us really have that any more - if we ever did. I wouldn't like to see current laws on libel, inciting racism etc recalled.