Is it time to end religious oaths in court proceedings?

The Mail and the Telegraph report that at its forthcoming AGM the Magistrates’ Association is to debate a proposal to remove the possibility for witnesses and defendants to swear a religious oath in court: instead, says the Telegraph, “all those giving evidence in court would make a secular pledge” – presumably along the lines of the current affirmation – “which it is thought would make it fairer and more relevant for people to help them understand the importance of what they are saying”.

If agreed by the Association the proposal will be put forward to the Ministry of Justice. The proposer, Ian Abrahams, a magistrate from Bristol, told the Mail on Sunday,

“More and more I see people shrug their shoulders or say ‘whatever’ when asked to take it. Other witnesses think it’s wrong to swear on a holy book, and make an affirmation instead. I’m suggesting we take holy books out of the process. Instead, people will have to show they understand they could be sent to prison if they don’t tell the truth”.

The Mail on Sunday reported a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice as saying that “We have no plans to change the arrangements for swearing an oath or making an affirmation in court, which have worked well for many years and still do”.


Reaction has been  largely predictable. Michael Nazir-Ali, for example, former Bishop of Rochester, talked of a slippery slope towards the increasing secularisation of society and asked “where will it end – with the Coronation Oath?”, suggesting that choice was being restricted “in the name of tolerance and secularisation”. And evidently the MoJ is not going to buy the idea anyway.

However, the proposal is not simply going to go away. In January, Sean Templeton, of the Scots Bar, posted about the issue on the National Secular Society’s blog, suggesting the introduction of a simple oath in the Scottish courts that would be acceptable to everyone, regardless of belief or religion – his suggestion being, “I swear that I will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. He argues that the problem with affirmation is that “it sets a witness out and it instantly draws a great deal of attention to the fact that the person will not swear to God”.

I confess to a certain degree of sympathy with Templeton – but his simple oath would still probably not satisfy everyone. Quakers (of whom I am one) and, possibly, others find the whole idea of “swearing” abhorrent. One of the four traditional testimonies to which Friends have held throughout the history of the Society is the testimony to truth and integrity; and Friends object not merely to swearing by God but to swearing simpliciter:

“Friends believe that their word should be accepted at any time among all persons and thus [uphold] the right to stand simply on their own word rather than swearing on the Bible or before God…” [Quaker Faith & Practice 20.50]

The form of the affirmation set out in the Oaths Act 1978 – “I solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – chimes with that position. But I suspect that, for many Quakers, using the words “I swear” would not. And there is a wider theological problem with oaths. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 records Jesus as saying:

“But I say unto you, Swear not at all … But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”.

Which is pretty unequivocal – and which is why, presumably, the last of the Thirty-nine Articles (Of a Christian Man’s Oath) attempts to tackle the problem head-on:

“AS we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth”.

Commenting on Article XXXIX, Dean Jensen, of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, contends that

“The Christian’s truthfulness will not be increased by swearing, but swearing reassures our hearers that we are telling the truth and gives them something to refer back to when our truthfulness comes under question. There is nothing wrong in swearing an oath when required.  The 39th of our 39 Articles is “Of a Christian man’s Oath” handling the question of doing that which Jesus seems to be forbidding. We do not swear because we need to but because our hearers need reassurance”.

I’m not convinced: if the passage quoted from the Sermon on the Mount is indeed an authentic saying of Jesus, then it would appear to admit of no exceptions and Article XXXIX looks like a cop-out.

Frank Cranmer