Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


The Promise

I promise to serve my God, the Queen, the Commonwealth and the Sea Cadet Corp and to obey the orders of my superior officers. I will proud of my uniform and smart and seaman-like in wearing it. I will always do my duty.

It was a long time ago now but I remember it so clearly. Paul Love, Peter Crocker, Matthew Ferrell and I were all dressed up for the first time in our new, smartly-pressed sailor uniforms standing before the Commanding Officer and the whole ship’s company of TS Caprice to speak the Promise that would launch an amazing three-year adventure in the Sea Cadet Corps followed by six years in the Royal Navy.

For the first four weeks after joining the Sea Cadets, we had stood at the back of the hall during Colours and Sunset wearing the civvies that marked us as new entries not yet entitled to wear the navy blue uniform that our more seasoned shipmates wore. For a long month, we learned how to take care of that uniform, enduring lessons on where, exactly, to put the seven creases and how to tie a lanyard and how to wear a beret without looking like you had a blue pancake on your head. After that month, we knew what all the badges meant and how to tie a reef knot and a bowline and who to salute and we all knew which brush to use first when we shined our shoes and we could march (after a fashion). Only then were we issued our uniforms and ready to make our promises.

One minute to Colours, sir! Ship’s Company, turning aft, right and left TURN! Colours, sir! Pipe the Still!

PEEEEEEEEEEEE – continue for 8 seconds – EEEEEEEEP!

On the Tuesday before our Big Day, we rummaged through musty sacks of hand-me-down uniforms searching for that special pair of bell-bottoms that was only slightly enormous and the lanyard that wasn’t too frayed and when we got home that night, most of us had our first encounter with an ironing board. Getting those seven creases sharp and evenly spaced but not shiny turned out to be quite a palaver. Several damp tea towels and a jug of water later, I had merely created a cloud of steam while the heavy blue serge conspired with gravity to guarantee that my attempts at getting my uniform smart and seaman-like ended in failure. After much practice, I was able to look like a proper sailor and I was proud of my uniform as the last part of The Promise required.

I will be proud of my uniform and smart and seaman-like in wearing it. I will always do my duty.

The first part of the promise was a bit trickier.

I promise to serve my God…

Like most English kids of that era, I always put Church of England in the religion box that appeared on every official form. Need to refill your prescription? What religion are you? Need a new passport? What religion are you? I had stopped believing in God on September 5th, 1973 but I didn’t start writing atheist on the forms until I arrived at BRNC Dartmouth, the college for Naval officers in 1988. When I first joined the Navy, my ID tags said C of E. By the time I left, they said ATH.

Bell bottom blues.

As far as I know, few of my school friends believed in God but we were all taught to write C of E on those forms and to make promises that we had no intention of keeping. I found this harder to do as the years went by and, by the time my own kids were old enough to make promises of their own, I found it impossible to let them make promises that were false.

American readers may remember the case of the gay Eagle Scout who was thrown out of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) because he was gay. He was not actually thrown out because he was gay but because he was an atheist and he did not agree to the scout’s principle of Duty to God (though he was gay too and they did not like that at all).

As a result of the controversy, the Boy Scouts of America changed their policy to allow gays to join. They later decided to admit girls too and, even later, trans kids. Still no atheists allowed though.

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to a God. In the first part of the Scout Oath the member declares, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.”

The Scout’s policy statement clarifies this to say that you don’t have to be an actual Christian or even to believe in God as such. Buddhists and Native Americans are welcome as well as a long list of other religions.

Boy Scouts of America recognizes religious awards for about 35 faith groups including Islam, Judaism, Bahá?í, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Sikhism and 28 varieties of Christianity.

Boy Scouts of America

No atheists or agnostics allowed though.

When Little Clown was a lad, two of my friends ran the local scout troop while I coached the soccer team for all three of our boys. My friends suggested that Little Clown should join the scouts.

“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.”

When I expressed my doubts about making a promise that I knew to be false, they thought I was stickling unnecessarily. They said that no one really cared whether you believed in that stuff. It was just some words that you had to say to get in the door.

The Sea Cadets have recently updated their handbook to clarify that the promise made to God can refer to any god or none at all.

The Sea Cadet Promise: I promise to serve my God, my Queen, my country, and, the Sea Cadet Corps and to obey the orders of my superior officers.

Note: My God refers to an individual’s own faith and is intended to apply equally to those from all faiths or none. (Sea Cadets’ Ethos, 2019, p4)

Sea Cadet Corps — Wikipedia

I’m glad they straightened that out.

In the 21st Century, teenagers in the UK are overwhelmingly non-religious. I wonder how many have been excluded from wholesome organisations because of their non-belief. I wonder how many were forced to make a promise that they did not believe.