Article
Character
Comment
Politics
6 min read

Why the Prime Minister should swear this new oath

A proposed new constitutional instrument is a hopeful recognition of the human condition.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Keir Starmer stands in the House of Commons and recites an oath from a card held up in front of him.
Starmer swears allegiance to King Charles III, September 2022.

Thank the Almighty, the General Election is over! We have a Prime Minister. We have another cadre of MPs, some old hands and many Young Turks, all ready for the excitement of Parliamentary procedural intrigue and (hopefully) hungry to exercise their power for the betterment of their constituents. As a nation, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We have emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of what I can only hope is five years of a milder political climate. 

What happens next? 

Well, today, every MP, new or old, will swear the Oath of Allegiance to King Charles III. This is not optional. Anyone refusing to do so cannot exercise their rights as an MP and will not receive their salary. Ultimately, the refuseniks can have the reality of their election voided. The wording of the oath excels in comprehensive brevity:  

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.  

The Monarch is anointed as the protector of the realm, always seeking what is best for Great Britain, and so to swear an oath to be faithful to the Monarch is to swear to seek the best for their realm. It is all perfectly simple and logical. 

But is it enough? 

It would seem that swearing fealty to the Crown is no longer enough. Now the PM must specifically swear not to lie to the Sovereign and the nation. 

Some would argue not. Our political life has been marked by controversy for as long as I have been old enough to be politically aware. MPs expenses, the coalition Government, the Brexit referendum, parliamentary gridlock, Downing Street lockdown parties…Liz Truss! It’s all been like a circus, except all the animals are dead, the clowns just sit around screaming and crying, and the tent burns down. Trust in our political establishment could hardly be lower. Perhaps in light of this, a couple of constitutional scholars have mooted the idea of an extra oath - one for the Prime Minister. 

Professor Andrew Blick, of King’s College, London, and Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield have written an open letter, on behalf of The Constitution Society, inviting the new Prime Minister to swear an additional oath specifically for their office.

The oath is intended to act as a confidence booster - an extra promise that the most powerful MP in the land will abide by the conventions of our constitution: Cabinet Government, The Ministerial Code, Civil Service Impartiality, etc. In an effort to restrain the darker impulses of the PM, the oath would also mean swearing to uphold the seven Nolan Principles: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, Leadership. It would seem that swearing fealty to the Crown is no longer enough. Now the PM must specifically swear not to lie to the Sovereign and the nation. 

In a moment of unattractive despair, I can’t help but let out a depressed sigh.

Yet, I also have hope. This new constitutional instrument would, on the surface, be a morose admission of defeat. We can no longer assume honesty in those who wield the most power and influence. Look deeper and you see a fascinating, and hopeful, recognition of the political (and human!) condition.

The very act of swearing an oath is itself a virtue. It is an act that puts one face to face with absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. 

Yet, I also have hope. This new constitutional instrument would, on the surface, be a morose admission of defeat. We can no longer assume honesty in those who wield the most power and influence. Look deeper and you see a fascinating, and hopeful, recognition of the political (and human!) condition. 

I find this new oath fascinating, and rather cheering, in spite of all my previous electoral gloom, because it clearly speaks to the human need for the transcendent and the eternal. So often our politics seems to be mired in the drudgery of the immediate: will the economy grow in the next quarter, will NHS waiting lists diminish by the end of the calendar year, will the crime stats be favourable any time soon. We rarely hear of any ‘vision’ for our country the looks to the horizon - not even the decade, let alone the voyage into the forever. Yet this oath does just that! 

It does so in two ways.  

Firstly, by seeking to enshrine the Nolan principles, it recognises the distinction between ‘values’ and ‘virtues’. Values have the veneer of the absolute but are far too easily jettisoned when necessity dictates. Commitment to a value is good, but is in constant competition with other values: openness battles the need for state-secrecy, honesty’s sword is often broken in the face of obfuscation’s onslaught, etc. The holding of values is a static thing, which can wilt and die in the burning heat of reality. A virtue, on the other hand, is something which must be constantly practiced and nurtured. A virtue always looks to its ideal form - a universal perfection of honesty or selflessness. Swearing an oath to uphold the Nolan Principles means committing to operating by them every day, and so allowing them to grow in the individual, becoming easier and easier to live by until the practitioner of virtue struggles NOT to operate in their eternal light.  

Secondly, the very act of swearing an oath is itself a virtue. It is an act that puts one face to face with absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. The act of making an oath recognises that our lives and deeds are not simply contingent moments in the pitiless march of time, but that they resound in the halls of eternity.  

I think this is why Jesus warns people against swearing oaths in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. When reading this warning in the light of the serious, radical, and even hyperbolic speech that comes before, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t want us to avoid making promises, but that he realises just how bad we are at keeping them. Swearing an oath (invoking eternity, the absolute, the divine!) means that when we break our oaths we diminish ourselves in the face of God.  

“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  

This is not a command to avoid promises and promise keeping, but a radical call to live one’s life always in the light of eternity, so that even the simple ‘yes’ is the truest oath one can make. 

We need leaders - political and otherwise - who can offer the human soul something more than simply an uninspiring roadmap for five years of moderate economic improvement. We need leaders who can inspire the nation with a vision of eternity. We need leaders who point us to that horizon of the absolute where we do not see individual good acts warring against the forces of apathy and indifference, but see the Good itself illuminating our every moment with hope and joy.  

Perhaps an oath - an admission that there is meaning beyond our momentary finitude - is the best way to inject a bit more universality and meaning into a political system that has left this author feeling quite so cold so far. 

I shall pray for our new Prime Minister, and for all our new MPs. I shall hold them before the face of God who is beyond all immediate concerns and pray that they may have the vision of our eternal destiny ever in their minds and in their hearts. I shall earnestly intercede that they recognise that their oaths are not simply a formula of words, but a positive spur to lead us into a future that never ceases to grown brighter and brighter with the light of our eternal destiny. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.