What is an oath? True, the word is sometimes used to denote a profane or offensive expression, but the meaning we normally have in mind is that of a formal declaration, pledge or promise, made before God, of allegiance or loyalty, or to fulfill a pledge. It commits the one swearing to future action, and incurs penalties if broken.
For example, before taking their seat in Parliament, MPs swear before God an oath of allegiance to the Monarch. The practice was formally introduced during the reign of Elizabeth I by the Act of Supremacy 1563, but it has its origins in Magna Carta, agreed on 15th June 1215, which begins by acknowledging the nation’s Christian foundation and primary allegiance to God. It is therefore, at base, an undertaking made to God, and the penalty for breaking it, until fairly recently, was death!
Similarly, prior to ordination, priests are called under oath to affirm and declare their belief in the faith as revealed in Scripture and set forth in the creeds, ‘and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. Again, it is an undertaking under seal to God.
By way of variation, but also sharing the character of an oath, the BBC is self-avowedly ‘dedicated’ to God The Latin inscription set in stone over the entrance to Broadcasting House proudly proclaims, ‘This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General….’
But in modern day UK, does any of this really matter any more? After all, society has moved on, the argument goes. We’ve outgrown all the mumbo jumbo and superstition that characterized those earlier, primitive times, when it was thought that all this stuff mattered. We’re better, more sophisticated and caring … more tolerant of each other now. True, we still like a bit of tradition and pageantry, but at base that’s all these words are – nice traditions that lend a bit of gravitas to life.
It’s a bandwagon whose giddy heights even the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently attempted to scale. Never mind his oath to uphold the faith as revealed in Scripture, he would appear now to share the view that the Bible needs ‘reinterpreting’ and ‘reapplying’ in order to fit it for purpose in the modern world. When recently asked whether he thought gay sex was sinful, for example, he memorably stated, ‘I don’t do blanket condemnation …’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41460222).
A wiser course of action before answering would surely have been to consult God, because in one fell swoop he dismissed the clear teaching of Scripture, trivialized ‘sin’, and thereby rendered entirely meaningless Christ’s death on the cross for the redemption of us all. Not bad going for one interview, when you think about it, because he effectively ripped the heart out of Christianity.
With respect, this will not do. Whatever narrow and uncomfortable fence on which His Grace chooses precariously to sit, Scripture is the eternal word of God, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is not, therefore, the Bible that needs to change to align it with the world, but the world that needs to repent and be conformed to God, as revealed in the Bible. Only that way is there hope for sinners – which includes us all.
But to return to the question of oaths. Every time someone swears an oath before God, they are solemnly committing themselves to perform what they have undertaken, and to follow Him in faithfulness and obedience. To renege on that oath is betrayal and treachery: it is treason, and will incur to the full the penalties attaching to the offence. It will bring judgment.
Saying later that you didn’t mean it, or didn’t realize what you were signing up to, is irrelevant. An oath once taken – whether you’re an MP, member of the clergy, or even the BBC – is binding for life. It matters.