Rev Kenneth Stewart

The Oath of Allegiance: changed with a changing constitution

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The Oath of Allegiance: changed with a changing constitution

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for relaxing the position of the church in this whole area has to do with the fact that the Parliament has altered both the constitution itself as well as the Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch. Indeed, the nature of these changes did in fact lead to the RP church relaxing its position in the 1960’s.

These changes, however, and their true effect upon the voter and the elected Member of Parliament, need to be examined more closely.

First, changes to the Oath of Allegiance

In 1868, the form of oath to be taken changed significantly. Prior to that, the terms of allegiance were extraordinarily detailed and, by way of example, it is worth noting the following form of the oath which was in place in the early 1700’s

I, (John Smith), do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify and declare in my conscience before God and the world, that our sovereign lord King William is lawful and rightful king of this realm and of all other his majesty's dominions and countries thereunto belonging. And I do solemnly and sincerely declare that I do believe in my conscience that the person pretended to be the prince of Wales during the life of the late King James and since his decease pretending to be and taking upon himself the stile and title of king of England by the name of James the Third, hath not any right or title whatsoever to the crown of this realm or any other the dominions thereto belonging. And I do renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him. And I do swear that I will bear faith and true allegiance to his majesty King William, and him will defend to the utmost of my power against all traitorous conspiracies and attempts whatsoever which shall be made against his person, crown or dignity. And I will do my best endeavours to disclose and make known to his majesty and his successors all treasons and traitorous conspiracies which I shall know to be against him or any of them. And I do faithfully promise to the utmost of my power to support, maintain and defend the limitation and succession of the crown against him the said James and all other persons whatsoever as the same is and stands limited (by an act instituted an act declaring the rights and liberties of the subject and settling the succession of the crown) to his majesty during his majesty's life, and, after his majesty's decease, to the Princess Ann of Denmark and the heirs of her body being Protestants, and for default of issue of the said princess and of his majesty respectively, to the Princess Sophia, electoress and duchess dowager of Hanover, and the heirs of her body being Protestants. And all these things I do plainly and sincerely acknowledge and swear according to these express words by me spoken, and according to the plain and common sense understanding of the same words, without any equivocation, mental evasion or secret reservation whatsoever. And I do make this recognition, acknowledgment, abjuration, renunciation and promise, heartily, willingly and truly, upon the true faith of a Christian. So help me God."

In 1868, by the Promissory Oaths Act, the form of the oath was rather dramatically shortened to the following:

I do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her majesty Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.’

This is essentially the form of oath still in use today:

I 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’.

It was probably the rather bland nature of this oath, and its rather stark lack of specificity, which led to increased reluctance on the part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland to be too critical of those who took office of state on its terms. After all, it is merely pledging allegiance ‘according to law’. And, of course, the question arises, according to what law?

In other words, what the substance of this reduced oath really amounts to is not easy to say. One could almost be forgiven for seeing it as not really promising anything more than what every citizen of the land is bound to perform anyway – that is, not to commit treason or sedition.

Furthermore, it is possible, in the light of the constitution, that the words ‘according to law’ cover the possibility of the course of succession to the throne itself being legally altered – providing the constitution makes provision for that. All of which brings us, naturally, to the changes which have taken place in the constitution of the United Kingdom itself – which need to be understood in order to appreciate the Oath of Allegiance more effectively.

Second, changes to the constitution

Due to changes in the constitution in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20thcentury, most people would be of the view that the constitution of the United Kingdom has been so altered as to have transferred real sovereignty from the Monarch to the Houses of Parliament – particularly, to the House of Commons by the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949.

However, it can hardly be denied that while that may be the case in appearance and, to some extent, by convention it does not appear to be the case in law. Although the common view would be that in the event of a ‘stand-off’ between the Crown and the Commons, the Commons would be the winner, true Sovereignty – in law – still lies with the Monarch.

Here, perhaps the decisive point involves Royal consent and Royal assent: despite all the changes, it remains a stubborn fact that all Acts approved by Parliament do not become law without Royal assent and, further, and remarkably, Parliament cannot even discuss a matter which affects the Royal prerogative without Royal consent!

Therefore, while it might indeed be the case that Parliament, in the ordinary form of a Parliamentary Act, could amend or repeal even the Act of Settlement itself (long considered the most fundamental of all current statutes) it could only debate doing so with Royal consent and could only legislate to that effect with Royal assent – and possibly with the consent of all the other realms under the Monarch’s headship.

This would appear to mean that taking the Oath of Allegiance, according to the current constitution, is effectively promising to uphold what the Monarch is promising to uphold until the Monarch herself decides otherwise. After all, the pledge of allegiance is to the Monarch and not to the constitution – which was the alternative pledge advocated forcibly by the late Tony Benn.

Indeed, it would appear that this persistent form of oath, in which allegiance is pledged to the Monarch rather than the constitution as such, provides the key to opening up what lies at the heart of the oath of allegiance: the pledge to the Monarch is not simply because she represents the constitution, as the Head of Parliament, and neither is it simply a pledge to her simply to keep her, and her heirs and successors, on the throne. Rather, the pledge is to the Monarch in order to retain as hers the particular powers which belong to her as detailed in the existing constitution and to pledge allegiance to her is particularly to promise to uphold all her prerogatives until she decides she wishes to relinquish them.

Put more simply, the current Oath of Allegiance is an oath to preserve the prerogatives of the Monarch as these are currently invested in her office by the existing constitution – which prerogatives include the Headship of the Church of England and all the rights and privileges, spiritual and temporal, involved in that Headship.

From the preceding, then, it would appear that taking the Oath of Allegiance remains inconsistent with a genuine commitment to the Covenants.

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