Agnostics, Atheists and Republicans in Parliament and at Church for National Commemorations
We used to discriminate heavily against non-Anglicans. We have changed the rules about requiring people to swear Oaths (before God) before gaining Probate, giving Evidence in Court, or taking a seat in the Houses of Parliament.
The playing (and singing) of the National Anthem at the end of a Cinema Screening or Theatrical Performance has almost totally dropped out of practice. Most of us still stand for the national anthem – but do not sing it.
Except in church where it normally sung.
So what happens if you are agnostic (or even atheist) and believe that our head of state should be elected – and you are elected to the sort of office where you are expected to attend national commemorations that have a religious element – lead by the established Church of England? (A possible problem for other Faiths as well?)
You are between a rock (your personal integrity) and a hard place (The Daily Mail). Compromise is inevitable – but messy.
If we look initially at the Parliamentary Oath:
I (name of Member) swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
UK Parliament website : Swearing in and the parliamentary oath [16 September 2015] Wording of the oaths
Members have been allowed to affirm since the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, but not to accommodate atheists!
I (name of Member) do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.
UK Parliament website : Swearing in and the parliamentary oath [16 September 2015] Wording of the solemn affirmation
The change was brought in to accommodate Quakers and a few other religious minorities.
Quakers believed in living in such honesty that an oath could add nothing to what they said. As one of their founders George Fox said, when arrested and asked to swear the oath of allegiance: “Our allegiance [does] not lie in oaths but in truth and faithfulness.”
When handed a Bible to swear on, Fox opened it at the verse that read, “Swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath” [James 5:12]- a rather awkward text for the book that people are supposed to swear on.
BBC News Website, 20 May 2015 : The difference between ‘affirmation’ and ‘oath’
However, this does seem to let atheists and agnostics off the hook. But this leaves those who believe in a different form for a head of state in some difficulty. They have a mandate, but have to swear an oath (or make an affirmation) of “true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors”. As Tony Benn pondered:
When one looks at the oaths of a privy councillor, a Member of Parliament and the Sovereign at the coronation, they throw an interesting light on the obligations by which we are bound. The reality is that nobody takes an oath to uphold democracy in Britain. The Queen takes an oath to govern the country and uphold the rights of the bishops. We take an oath to the Queen. Nobody in the House takes an oath to uphold democracy in Britain, and one does not need to have watched “A very British coup” to realise that that might have some relevance at some future date. [HC Deb 7 July 1988 Vol 136 c 1240]
House of Commons Library Research Paper 01/116 : The Parliamentary Oath (pdf)
Should we have mechanisms to exclude people who want a particular constitutional change (however misguided others may believe that to be) – and who may seek to promote such change through the democratic process? Or should they be forced to rely exclusively on extra-parliamentary action?
I suspect that we do not tolerate this because the establishment is determined to keep Irish Republicans out of the Commons. An oath or affirmation along the lines of an allegiance “to the nation and the head of state as constitutionally defined“, should be adequate to allow all those who desire change – through parliamentary process – to take their seats.
National Events involving the Established Church pose a number of problems for senior politicians who are expected to attend but who are not Anglican Monarchists.
In some cases the issue seems to be fudged – you can be “inclusive” and have the Established Church leading Hymns and Prayers. The Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph Service is possibly the prime example. A wide range of religious leaders are “wheeled out” and senior politicians – regardless of their faith – attend. The Bishop of London leads an Anglican service – which includes the National Anthem at the end.
So, if you are a Buddhist do you say “Amen” to “we may live only to thy glory and to the service of mankind through Jesus Christ our Lord.”? Probably not – you keep a respectful silence. If you are a high commissioner for a commonwealth country that is not a “Realm” (i.e. The Queen is not your Head of State), do you sing “Long may she reign over all of us”? Probably not – you keep a respectful silence.
But, if you are British and say both an atheist and a (constitutional) republican, do you sing your National Anthem or are singing the words “God save our gracious Queen” and “Long may she reign over all of us” hypocritical? Or do you stand in respectful silence – which is how most of us observe the National Anthem in other contexts?
Constitutionalists will argue that because the Nation is personified by the Queen it is appropriate that our National Anthem should be about our Sovereign. They will also argue that with an Established Church it is also appropriate that the Anthem should invoke God.
But taking that line puts a large minority (non Deists and Republicans) in a difficult position. Apparently standing in respectful silence is not deemed “appropriate” and in future we are all to be expected to sing those words. I think that is intolerant and regrettable.