Jesus, according to Matthew's account, said this: "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one." (Matt 5:37)
James said " let your "Yes" be yes and your "No" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." (James 5:12)
Apparently, along with the Essenes, Jesus and James believed that one should not swear oaths.
Anglicans, of course, have long felt that it is alright, under certain circumstances, to make oaths. The Thirty-Nine Articles addresses this when it says in Article XXXIX. Of a Christian Man's Oath: "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, judgment, and truth."
The interpretation of Jesus and James in this case is that the prohibition concerns "vain and rash Swearing," something we might all agree no proper Christian should do. This interpretation is problematic and is an indication of the limitations of the 39 Articles.
I am not sure that this particular interpretation is what Jesus and James had in mind. It would seem that they at least had in mind that swearing on some holy object (say the bible) or using the name of the Holy One, or even an indirect reference to the Holy One (say God, or Lord) is only going to lead to trouble. When a statement is made it stands and the speaker or writer stands with it. Oaths will not help.
The demand that member churches of the Anglican Communion take oaths is troublemaking. If the future of the Anglican Communion is dependent on signing covenants, swearing to uphold Lambeth 1998, Resolutionj 1.10, affirming in binding ways that particular statements commit churches to particular behavior, or other oath taking activities, we may be getting ourselves into the devil's trouble.
There is an interesting practical parallel to this business of letting yes be yes and no be no. Pilate, said in response to the demand that he change the wording of the sign over Jesus, "What I have written I have written." (John 19:22) Here the issues in not about swearing that a statement is true as a way of making what was said or written acceptable, but that further explanations would make the statement acceptable.
In the past several weeks we have seen the problems that come from forgetting Jesus, James and even Pilate.
At last General Convention a difficult resolution was passed, B033. It has been tagged as everything from a sell-out to a necessary compromise, to a confirmation of our desire to remain part of the Anglican Communion. But is it what it is. All sorts of interpretations are possible as to its meaning and effect, but all such interpretations are just that – interpretations.
The House of Bishops in New Orleans made an interpretation as to the groups that B033 references and that interpretation was understood to give assurance to the Primates, The Archbishop of Canterbury and the ACC that The Episcopal Church House of Bishops were serious about the call to exercise restraint in matters that were problematic for the Communion. It was at least an interpretation. It looked a lot like swearing.
It has been pointed out by a wide variety of people, both in the dissenter /realignment and in the progressive community, that the HoB had no business making such assurances. No one argues that they could not – they did. And no one argues that the HoB could, if it wished, bind itself to a particular swear, although it is unclear that in this case they did. The assurances have been widely understood as pointing to a particular interpretation of B033 and stating that in the call to exercise restraint they recognized the inclusion of the ordination of a partnered gay or lesbian person to the episcopate as a matter of concern.
Following the HoB meeting there have been over 40 commentaries by Bishops to their home flocks. BabyBlueOnline has the list. As Kendal Harmon's blog states, "40 down, 60 to go." What are we to make of these statements? Some are simply reports of the HoB meeting, but most go on to give an interpretation of what happened, what the HoB statement to the Primates means, what it means for the future stance of the Diocese, etc.
What does seem apparent is that the Bishops in New Orleans and afterwards cannot resist the temptation to do precisely what Jesus, James and Pilate advise against: They certainly could not simply let B033 stand. They interpreted it, again and again. More, they did so in order to make their assurances to the Communion more forceful. They didn't swear, but they did go much further than simply letting their yes be yes and their no be no.