I was invited by the Dean of Manchester to preach in his Cathedral at the annual Service to mark the beginning of the Legal Year this morning. There was a large turnout of judges, lawyers and civic dignitories. The Bible readings were from Job 28:1-12 and John 1:1-14. What follows is the basic text of my address.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here this morning and to preach at a time of ‘interesting’ developments in the life of our nation. It is particularly good that different faiths are represented as we mark the importance of justice and law in a society that is in danger of treating both with casual utilitarian pragmatism.

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures – although a reading of historian Tom Holland’s new book Dominion makes the point powerfully. According to the biblical witness, justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine during a Sunday School holiday in Saltburn from my church in Liverpool. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

The point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to a justice that has become a means of privilege on the part of those who either are powerful enough or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Manchester, I hasten to add, or even in England.

During my time as the Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I was closely connected with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and particularly with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe. I visited many times. This was during a period of considerable challenge in Zimbabwe, when President Mugabe was living with the consequences of his bizarre land policy, when inflation was rising to over 10,000 per cent (not the final figure), when water was scarce and food in short supply in Gweru. The secret police were everywhere – stories for another time – and political oppression was evident. Even the Church suffered as a renegade Bishop of Harare (a corrupt Mugabe beneficiary called Nolbert Kunonga) declared UDI, stole money and properties, and lied his way through the courts. He is no longer there; the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is.

One of the points I kept having to argue in and for Zimbabwe was that the restoration of the rule of law was essential. There could be no justice, no democracy, no prosperity and no freedom until the rule of law was re-established and respected. It is the rule of law that guarantees impartiality and consistency, thus allowing society and the economy to tread an honest path to prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The rule of law guarantees integrity.

Or does it?

There are many countries where the rule of law holds firm, but life is not free or fair. Which surely teaches us that the rule of law is vital, but also inadequate in and of itself: it is the content of the law that establishes the colour, the complexion, the integrity of the culture. I know Godwin’s law all too well – that when, as a last resort, you refer to Adolf Hitler, you have lost the argument – but it is salutary to recall that National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s had little problem with the rule of law; they just made laws that legitimised what they wanted to do anyway. (I am afraid I am student of German politics and I recognise that this is a bit ‘niche’.)

So, what a good society actually needs is the rule of good law. The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) that the Reichstag passed on 23 March 1933 made perfect sense within the internal circular logic of a Weimar Republic that had run into the ground – allowing the Führer to bypass other laws in order to break the logjam and, in exceptional circumstances, to get things moving. “Just get it done” was the sentiment that opened the door to the institution of injustice by a Nazi Party that shaped law by a worldview that was essentially dehumanising. The Law of Unintended Consequences? (Or were the consequences entirely intended?)

Well, I had the joy of working through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords and spoke in debates at each stage (one with 192 speakers over two days). In the last few weeks, in order to get the Benn Bill through the Lords before the ‘prorogation that never was’, we once again had to anticipate how a government might handle its own defeat over against the promises it had made about delivering Brexit. At every stage of debate a large number of judges, former law lords and other lawyers spoke eloquently (and even comprehensibly), often drawing attention to the inadequacies of draft legislation received from the House of Commons – especially in relation to the constitutional and legal elements of the proposed legislation. You know what happened next.

The point I want to make before moving on to a bit of theology is that our attention has now been drawn to a threat that must be taken seriously if our democracy is to be upheld and not simply sold down the river on a boat called expediency. If politicians refuse to define properly how decisions about primary legislation are to be made – that is, not leaving to undefined ministerial discretion such terms as “appropriate” – then it will be left to the courts; and then judges will be accused of going beyond their brief by establishing law instead of interpreting it. You see the point? You recall the sniping at judges in the Supreme Court. The proper scrutiny of legislation – the very purpose of an upper house – and the deliberative activity of an independent judiciary are non-negotiable elements of a mature democracy … something forgotten or ignored by those newspapers that disgracefully and dangerously mock judges or denounce them as ‘Enemies of the People’. Unlike some politicians or newspapers, judges have to pay attention not only to the legal precision of the immediately presenting issue, but also to how the UK will live and move and have its being in the future (after we have left the EU, for example). Arguments about “freedom from” whatever ills the EU is believed to have caused us have to be replaced by the much harder and more complex task of shaping what we have been “freed for”.

So, again, law is not enough. It is good law that matters. And good law cannot be either assumed by default, or merely wished for.

Now, this is what is illustrated in our readings. Ancient Wisdom literature assumes that even the highest courts and the most powerful politicians, governors, rulers and legislators are not ultimate. Even they are accountable. Even if they evade accountability to the people whose interests and security they are called to serve, they cannot escape their accountability to God. As soon as any culture or society convinces itself that it can do what it wants and is accountable only to itself, watch hubris – and its bedfellow corruption – emerge. In other words, accountability to God keeps people and nations honest to themselves.

We then see in the reading from John chapter 1 (the ‘Christmas Gospel’) that any outworking of a recognition of human accountability to God is messy. It was all OK when “in the beginning was the Word”, but the trouble started when “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”. As soon as flesh, blood, opinions, cultures and passions got involved, things began to get sticky. The birth of Jesus can get romanticised, but even as a baby he was targeted, hunted by a fearful Herod, exiled as a refugee in Egypt (a place actually synonymous with captivity and oppression, but now – perversely – the place of rescue and asylum), and was seemingly in trouble from the word go. Read the gospels and his major problem seems to have been with lawyers who, at the behest of the powers-that-be, kept using the law to try to catch him out, trip him up, get him to condemn himself out of his own mouth.

They nailed him in the end. But, even then, those putting him on trial found themselves – their humanity, their integrity, their faith – being judged by the silent victim. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

The failure of the lawyers of the day was to lose sight of the big picture – what we might call ‘the point of it all’. In relation to current challenges I have repeatedly tried to make the point that once we have “Got Brexit Done” – whatever it looks like – what then? What was it all for? The debate has been almost totally framed around economics and trade, and yet the economy is a means to an end, not the end in itself. An economy should thrive in order to allow a society to thrive, for the common good to be served and for individual human beings to flourish. They are the ends to which an economy should point. To reverse the priority is to turn people into servants of the interests of the economically powerful and to lose sight of any vision or value. It was not for nothing that Jesus warned us about gaining the world and losing our soul.

Too many of the lawyers of Jesus’s day lost sight of humanity. Rather than celebrate the fact that someone had been healed, they condemned Jesus for doing “work” on the Sabbath Day – missing the point of what the Sabbath was for and, more importantly, who it was for. I guess it was what Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote: “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

The reading goes on to speak of light shining in the darkness. We should be asking what that looks like in a messy world of human fragility and moral contradiction. Again, it isn’t some romantic fantasy. It means that those who bear the name of Christ and attempt to shape their life, their politics, their relationships, their behaviour and their values around the character and nature of the Jesus we read about in the gospels should shine as a light in a world that, frankly is riddled with lies and is too easily willing to crucify its prophets. If we dare to bear the name of Christ – to own what it means to be his Body – we must be willing to shine … even when that shining provokes some to extinguish the light and restore the twilight or darkness where clarity of vision can be lost and the common good be submerged under the games power plays.

Law must live. Law must go beyond text and inspire life. But, if it is to do that, the text must be got right. Justice can turn on a phrase – it is that important. And a good and just society depends on good lawyers who interpret good law and thereby promote the common good.

I rest my case, m’lud. I want to see an inextinguishable light shine when darkness threatens. It will be cross-shaped, but haunted by resurrection. It will not be dulled by threat or neglect. Or, as the Psalmist put it: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the oath that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

Yesterday my dad was 86 years old. Today at least 22 families will wake up to a world in which their own children will have found their life ended young. The loss can only be indescribable. Life will never be the same again; the sense of injustice will not be comprehended.

The cowardice of the perpetrator is striking. Isn’t it brave and principled to target unwitting children and young people?

The emergency services, along with ordinary people who responded heroically, represent the best of a society that refuses to regard such events as ‘normal’. It is shocking, a crime and a sin beyond words.

The words that haunt me come from a poem written three thousand years ago:

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:2)

The depths of human perversion are evident. My prayer is that those whose lives have been torn apart by this atrocity will be drawn by a profound hope and not devastated by fear.

May the crucified and risen One shine light into this darkness and bring some peace.

The Home Secretary's statement following the Hillsborough verdicts was read in the House of Lords yesterday. The former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, who chaired the Independent Panel, was seated in the gallery.

The whole exchange can be read here. My question, towards the end of the debate, was as follows:

My Lords, I declare an interest because I come from Liverpool and most of my family still live there. My grandmother lived on Anfield Road at the time of the tragedy—no one in Liverpool was so remote that they did not know someone who was affected by it. People who have not been recognised in the comments so far are those such as Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez, who gave huge amounts of money to support families and did so without expectation of gratitude or publicity. A lot of individuals, like them, showed enormous generosity at a time when the cause was not popular. Can the Minister assure us that the independent panel sets a model for how such investigations ought to be continued in the future in similar circumstances, with objective scrutiny of documentation? Also, does he think that current levels of press regulation under IPSO—before we get to Leveson stage 2—would be in any way stronger in preventing the sort of press abuse that continued until only three years ago?

Lord Ahmad's response was as follows:

I thank the right reverend Prelate for those questions. We have learned lessons from every element of the inquiry, and from the panel in particular. We will take forward all the issues, particularly good governance. We have set up an ongoing relationship with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on the issue of press regulation. As I ​have said already, we are waiting until the Government can look at the second part of the Leveson report to ensure that a comprehensive response can be given. On press regulation and review, we live in a very different world now from that of 27 years ago—indeed, of 10 years ago—and the press, along with everyone else, need to reflect on their responsibilities, particularly when reporting such tragedies as Hillsborough.

The second stage of Leveson will investigate the links between the police and the media. If this stage is ever reached. In the meantime, we have a press that is self-regulated, despite the 'independent' in IPSO.

Would current regulation make it any less possible for the Sun to do what it did 27 years ago? I doubt it. And it took the Sun 23 years to even begin to address its behaviour.

Nelson Mandela is dead.

Words are inadequate to celebrate such a man.

He is being quoted extensively across the Twittersphere.

If only those who admire, revere and quote him could emulate him. It is easier to admire him than it is to live like him – justice with mercy, hope with realism, generosity with responsibility. He liberated his oppressors by forgiving them – if we really take him seriously, we must ask how we can liberate our 'oppressors' or opponents? Easy to admire, hard to do.

I wrote and recorded an obituary for the great man several years ago. I will post it in a day or two (once I know if it has been used by the BBC.

Oh dear. Tens of millions of pounds lost to the taxpayer by firms overcharging for privatised services. Good on the Justice Minister for referring the whole mess to the Serious Fraud Office.

What now, then? Will the whole system of privatised services be questioned in the same way as is the welfare system? Will business owners be pursued because of their moral failings as well as their bureaucratic or financial ‘weaknesses’ (or are ‘scroungers and skivers’ more morally culpable than those who steal money in other ways)?

Just asking (during a spare minute at the desk).

This morning I preached at the Civic Service in Bradford Cathedral to mark the end on the Lord Mayor’s year in office. This enabled the Lord Mayor, Naveeda Ikram – the first Muslim woman Lord Mayor in the country – to reflect publicly on her year. It was a long service…

I wanted to take the opportunity to thank those who take up public office in any way and recognise the human cost of doing so (for some, at least). Here are the main bits, based on Matthew 5 and minus the jibes at Chelsea and questions arising from David Beckham’s haircut…):

The so-called Sermon on the Mount is often misheard and misinterpreted. It looks and sounds so simple, but is fraught with challenge and demand. In Matthew’s Gospel – which was not written in a moment of boredom as a twee way of telling stories about nice Jesus – this ‘sermon’ comes at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and serves as a summary of his teaching. In one sense, the rest of the Gospel puts flesh and blood onto what he says here. And it is gripping stuff that allows the comfort-seeker only one recourse: that is, to ignore it and walk away.

In this passage Jesus is not offering lots of self-help advice for people who want to live a fulfilled life. He is not suggesting ways of improving your happiness quota. He is saying very clearly that if you want to take God seriously – which means taking other people, wider society and the world seriously… and taking responsibility in and for them – there will be a cost. A cost to your prejudices (the meek will inherit the earth, not the powermongers after all), to your values (the hungry will be filled) and your expectations of comfort or satisfaction (people may revile and persecute you).

But, this passage does give us windows on the nature of public service which lies at the heart of this service and today’s celebrations. Let’s look at a few of them before we return to the point.

‘When Jesus saw the crowds’ he went away from them. He didn’t run after popularity or populism. There are dangers in seeking approval all the time. Yet, those who wish – for whatever reason – to serve on local councils must seek a popular mandate and canvas the votes of those who have the power to entrust it to you. In reality, whatever the benefits of public engagement, you get a pile of public exposure in which your personality, motives, dress sense, values, priorities and appearance will all be subject to popular critique – which is a nice way of saying that you open yourself up to being taken apart by people who carry no responsibility other than to pillory people who do. So, you can understand why Jesus didn’t run towards the crowds, but went up a mountain to do some serious thinking about what really matters when you come down again and can’t avoid the crowds or their demands.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’: yet many people can go though life avoiding contact with the poor, the humble and the publicly insignificant. One of the things that mayors – Lords or otherwise – often remark on is that until they began their demanding schedule of visits, they had no idea just how much amazing and self-sacrificial work and service was going on in their area. Naveeda has been to places she probably never knew existed and met people who, without any hope of reward, serve those in a variety of places of need. That is to be ‘poor in spirit’ – often unnoticed and unrewarded – serving those who are poor in spirit and just about every other way, too. Public service exposes you to things you might otherwise not see or encounter. (Which is why Anglican clergy live on the job – part of the community they serve and never being able to worship God without that worship being rooted in the realities of the community life around them.)

‘Blessed are those who hunger and search for righteousness’: Righteousness is not a pious notion… something to do with being a goody-goody. Righteousness has to do with being passionate about social justice, about recognising the inherent dignity and humanity of every person (made in the image of God, as Genesis puts it), and about committing oneself in body, mind and spirit to furthering the goals of that passion. At whatever personal cost.

And the personal cost can be great. Ask the family of those who serve voluntarily or in public service as councillors. ‘Blessed are the merciful’, says Jesus, but mercy is not something you will always find at the hands of a media seeking the sensational or the conflictual. Mercy is for the feeble and the sentimental in a society that speaks all the time of ‘fighting’ for causes. But, as Jesus says and we find so hard to believe or work out, ‘it is the merciful who will find mercy.

Can you imagine what it might look like to give our public servants the space to be merciful and to receive mercy for those they seek to serve?

(As an aside, I was listening to the Archbishop of York preaching at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Service here in this cathedral last Sunday afternoon and thinking about how we take for granted the culture and polity we enjoy in this country. For sixty years – whatever your particular views on monarchy itself as a feature of the polity – the Queen has presided over remarkable stability… and, as she reminded us in a speech last month, over a country whose democracy developed over a thousand years, rooted in a Christian theology and world view that is all-too-frequently disregarded or derided today. Our judicial system was not invented from thin air. The freedoms we take for granted did not just happen. These and other features of our assumed common life arose from an understanding of who we are as human beings, what matters in human living, why morality matters and where moral values derive from, how society should be shaped and on what moral and spiritual foundations it should be built. We take it all for granted as if ‘common goodness’ were a given in any human society. And we are in danger of giving some of this away without a moment’s thought about why we think what we think matters in human living and dying.)

Yet, as Her Majesty pointed out, we need to recall that our society has been shaped by a theology that enjoins self-giving, service, humility, justice exercised with mercy, a passion for ‘righteousness’. These things are written into the fabric of English life and law and into our assumptions about public service.

For this reason, then, I want, on your behalf, to thank those who serve our Metropolitan District of Bradford: those who stand for election and are rejected by the voters; those who, once elected, have to do the hard work of shaping the common good with the limited resources available to them – setting priorities that will always be deemed to be wrong by someone -, and giving their time to serve our wider community; those who are paid to make the whole thing work – the Chief Executive and all those who work at City Hall, carrying public responsibility and often seeing themselves kicked around in the public discourse.

In this context I think it right to note the service of the former Leader of Bradford Council, Ian Greenwood, who served this place for seventeen years and lost his seat at the last election. Many may disagree with his politics, but we would do well to recognise his service along with that of others who have been rejected by the electorate.

As we thank Naveeda and look to pray for the incoming Lord Mayor, Councillor Dale Smith, we conclude by remembering those demanding words of Jesus to his friends on the mountain when he went away from the crowds. Here he pulls us back to check the integrity of our own motivations and the focus of our own priorities and behaviours. Who, we might ask ourselves and each other, will be blessed by our particular form of public service? Who will find earth to inherit, who will be comforted, who will receive mercy, who will be filled, who will discover the freedom of the kingdom of God, who will ‘see God’ in and through us? And, the hardest question of all: when judgement is reached by future generations on our stewardship of our community, will we be seen to have been a blessing or a curse?

May God bless all those who serve in public office, in building civic society, and for the common good.

This service was followed two hours later by a Service of Thanksgiving for the Church Urban Fund. in the last 25 years the CUF has invested about £2 million through 159 grants to projects in the Diocese of Bradford. From January 2007 to December 2011 CUF provided 51 grants totalling £305,554.11 ( and that 11p matters!). The CUF-sponsored Near Neighbours scheme has provided 50 grants totalling £166,887.95 to the Bradford district – £243,390.85 in 71 grants across West Yorkshire. Churches in the metropolitan district run more than 125 community projects, supported by around 3,000 volunteers. According to the figures, the churches now support more youth workers than the statutory services do. Projects include work with some of the most vulnerable people and communities: asylum seekers, refugees, street workers, people who are homeless, single parents, elderly, disabled, unemployed, youth and children, parents and toddlers, parenting classes, education, sport and community relations, environmental and English language (ESOL) learning.

Impressive or what?

I have just been to speak to representatives of many faiths who are all involved in education in Bradford. I was offered two themes to choose from, but addressed both of them (fairly superficially) ahead of a discussion time. The first theme related to ‘religious pluralism in the lives of young people in Bradford’, the second to ‘the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society’. The following is a bit of a nit-picky skeleton of the matters we addressed, but I began with the observation that some interfaith work at international level resembles a BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk.’ Of course, what we mean is that it is good to talk (phenomenon) as long as we don’t talk about anything (content). Fear of ‘division’ drives an agenda of ‘least potential disagreement’. However, if there is no real discussion of difference, there can be no honest relationship anyway and the whole thing is really either a farce or a fraud.

First things first: ‘religious pluralism’ simply describes a fact, a reality, a phenomenon. It is not a virtue – something to be honoured and revered and never questioned. Different people live alongside and with each other, seeing the world and living in it in different ways. ‘Pluralism’ is the word that describes this. It is essentially neutral.

Therefore, we need to go on to distinguish between two sorts of questions: (a) those about truth and how claims for any world view of way of living actually stand up, and (b) given the acknowledged differences, how we then should live together in a single society or on a single planet. In relation to our children this means we need to grow a generation that experiences life within a particular understanding of its meaning, is informed about its own (and others’) world view and how it can be lived in and with, and is acquainted with the world view, lived experience and practices of others. This assumes that we give our children an informed reference point from which to look at the world and those who see it and live in it differently.

The problem here is that our children – I really mean those who do not belong to a strong faith community – are too often assumed to know Christianity and know where they stand as a base line from which to look outwards. They are more likely to be shaped by (a) the myth of neutrality – the assumption by many in the media and academia that a secular humanist world view is neutral (and therefore privileged in public discourse) while a religious one is a bit loony (and should be kept private); (b) a pride in ignorance or scepticism – see Richard Dawkins’ pride in never having read any theology (or philosophy?); (c) an assumption that materialism is a given and that salvation comes by having stuff; (d) an assumption that we can live in the ‘now’ and take no account of a future arising from the past that has shaped the present – because there is no inherent meaning to life anyway. See the studies of last year’s rioters and how some of them see the world.

This brought us to the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society. (I refer to a piece I wrote for the Guardian in July 2011 in whcih I draw a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools as the Church of England understands them.) My main point here is that (a) ‘cohesion’ is one of those words that too often describes a lowest common denominator ‘absence of tension’ in a community – a bit like ‘peace being the absence of war’ or ‘a good football season being one in which Manchester United gets relegated; and (b) justice is inadequate as a goal for human beings in society.

Now, this latter point might well be contentious if misunderstood. Experience (and history) tells us that justice by itself can easily become just ice. Fragmentation and conflict in the Balkans came about precisely because communities could not let go of historic injustices – but they saw justice for themselves as the priority over against justice for their neighbour. I maintain that we need to teach our children (with a massive dose of actual hypocrisy) that justice needs to be transcended by mercy. Mercy goes further and is much harder than justice; it recognises the injustice and the pain and refuses to be consumed by them. Too often the demand for justice simply creates a vicious circle of just ice.

That’s a brief and unillustrated summary of my address which was aimed at stimulating discussion and debate in a particular context. However, it also falls in a context of wider concern: events in Sudan.

The Diocese of Bradford is linked with the Anglican dioceses of Sudan where communal violence is flaring up – not as an intellectual notion, but in the burning of Christian buildings, the destruction of books and Bibles, and attacks on people. Here’s a link to this week’s events and here is a statement by the World Council of Churches that goes to the heart of the matter.

Words spoken by politicians and, sometimes, religious leaders are taken up by those more inclined to violence as sanction for action. When such words burn in the wrong people’s hearts and minds, the burning of buildings, books and people follows. Some politicians and Muslim leaders in Sudan have expressed anger at the recent attacks; we need to hear this echoed not only in Sudan, but also by religious leaders around the world – and especially by those who sit around the table at conferences saying how good it is to talk.