When my grandfather retired in 1932, my mother verbally arranged the rent of a Ross-shire house for himself, his wife and any unmarried child for their lifetime. With nothing in writing, that agreement was honoured through two generations of the owner's family until my unmarried aunt died in 1992. One's word is one's bond.
This past week, vows and promises have been much in the news. On her 21st birthday, the then Princess Elizabeth, said: 'I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great commonwealth family to which we all belong. God help me to make good my vow'. She signed her platinum jubilee address with the words: 'Your servant, Elizabeth'. Even those opposed to monarchy accept that she kept her vow.
Robin Downie (13 September
) affirms that 'the standard philosophical account of promises was first outlined by David Hume'. However, an investigation into similarities between the verbal agreement in Ross-shire and the declaration of the late Queen reveals something both older and with greater dynamic effect than David Hume, in both personal life and in the public arena.
Two and a half millennia earlier, the writer of Ecclesiastes was clear: 'When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfil it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfil it'. This is a theme picked up in David's folk lyric: 'Lord, who may live on your holy mountain?… the one who keeps a promise even when it hurts'.
The point in common between last century's Ross-shire folk and the late Queen is specified by the latter's explanation: 'For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life'. She revealed God as her anchor: 'I have been – and remain – very grateful to God for His steadfast love. I have indeed seen his faithfulness'.
Sir Keir Starmer describes our age as 'a time of uncertainty... when everything is spinning': pandemic, climate change, global tensions, inflation resulting from the Ukraine war, and so the list could go on. The relevance of a promise-keeping God in the public arena was affirmed in a Christmas broadcast: 'Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love'. These words were put into practice by the handshake of a grieving niece with the man perceived as representing the organisation which was responsible for the murder of her uncle.
Robin Downie concludes with a hope that those taking important vows see them as matters of personal integrity. He regrets that the signs are not encouraging. In this age of spiritual deprivation, may there not be a need to look beyond philosophical words to an 'anchor that keeps the soul' in personal life and provides a transforming dynamic to public life?
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to email@example.com