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)

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning to the judges, magistrates and diverse lawyers of Bradford at the so-called Legal Service at Bradford Cathedral. Not many jokes. And, to those on Twitter who asked if all the other services I do are illegal, I just call for a moment’s silence…

LEGAL SERVICE BRADFORD

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. 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. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

wpid-Photo-17-Aug-2011-2351.jpgThe 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 justice, but it has become a means of privilege to those who either are powerful or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Bradford, I hasten to add, or even in England. In my previous post as Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I had a close link with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Some years ago the then Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, tried to take control of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, was deposed from his post – and no longer recognised by the Anglican Communion as a bishop in the church – and, declaring UDI from the wider church, took possession of all the assets and finances of the Diocese of Harare. Of course, he didn’t do it alone: he used armed henchmen to attack anyone who tried to gain access to churches, threw out clergy and their families from their homes if they had not supported him, and, with unchallengeable hubris, declared war on the province, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all colonialism (which was defined as disagreeing with him) and anyone who stood in his way.

The problem with Dr Kunonga, however, was that he was backed by Robert Mugabe, who rewarded his faithfulness by awarding him expropriated white-owned farms and full support in the public sphere. And the public sphere included the system of law. Even when the courts found against Kunonga, the police and security services simply ignored the courts and defended the status quo.

It was evident, in all the complexities of my engagement with Zimbabwe, that no progress would or could be made in rebuilding the economy or renewing politics until the rule of law was re-established and allowed to stand at the heart of Zimbabwean life. To twist the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Where there is no justice, the people perish.”

wpid-Photo-15-Jan-2013-1056.jpgHaving moved from Croydon and a link with Zimbabwe, I am now in Bradford where our diocesan link is with the five dioceses of Sudan. I had hoped for somewhere like the Bahamas this time round, but Sudan is now beginning to make Zimbabwe look tame. My wife and I spent just over a week there this month. I discovered a couple of days ago that immediately after we had left the guesthouse where we had been staying in Khartoum – at one o’clock in the morning – the place was raided and everyone taken in for interrogation by the security services. The building has now, apparently, been held by the security services.

The rule of law, impartially administered, is clearly fundamental to any free society or system of justice. Both Zimbabwe and Sudan – where indigenous people are now being disappeared and foreigners expelled – demonstrate clearly what happens not only when justice is corrupted by the fear and greed of the powerful, but also when any anthropological undergirding of human value is diminished to the point of tyranny.

While in Sudan I was reflecting on a line written to Katkov by Fyodr Dostoyevsky: “Juridical punishment for crime scares a criminal far less than law-makers think, partly because the criminal himself requires it morally.” Isn’t that interesting? Dostoyevsky doesn’t see the need for justice and juridical punishment simply in terms of society’s need to keep the peace, deter the wrong-doers or fulfil a bureaucratic requirement in order to keep elected politicians happy with their harshness. Rather, he appeals to something far more fundamental: criminals require justice because only this takes seriously their humanity, their moral accountability, their very being as moral agents who have both rights and responsibilities in a human community of mutual obligation.

Now, in one sense, this shouldn’t need to be spelled out. But, in a society which is shaped by media headlines that scream for the blood of ‘people not like us’ – who remove criminals from the moral page by categorising them as ‘monsters’ – we have to keep reminding ourselves of the anthropological assumptions that underlie our practice of justice. What is a human being and why does anyone matter? Why, ultimately, does it matter that some people break the law and put themselves beyond the reach of mutual or civil society?

Which, I guess, is what unites us here today. Lawyers, magistrates, judges – all those involved or employed in the justice system assume certain fundamental things: that a good society is one that is properly ordered; that law is not sufficient of itself in securing an ordered society, but is indispensible to it; that the common good demands a common legal system that shows no favour and cannot be manipulated by those who would gain personal advantage at the cost of social integrity or coherence. However we might articulate it, we believe that good law is essential to justice and that justice does more than simply ‘keep things on the rails’. Justice demands more than mere pragmatism – it rests on an assumption about virtue being essential to human and societal character.

wpid-Photo-30-Oct-2012-1057.jpgI haven’t time – and this isn’t the place – to go into contemporary debates about what is called ‘virtue ethics’, but it starts from an understanding that rules and regulations are not enough to shape or guarantee ethics; virtue has to do with the making of character, and it is character that shapes behaviour and ethics… whatever the rules and regulations might actually be. I am assuming here that good ethics require just such virtue, if they are to be more than ‘rules of engagement’.

Perhaps surprising, then, that the reading from Job 28 speaks not of justice, but of wisdom. And, perhaps, surprising that a question asked three thousand years ago in a context of abject suffering in an obscure place in the Middle East should cry out to be heard even in Bradford in 2013: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” This man, Job, whose world has fallen apart in every aspect, cries out here not for mere practical solutions to his problems, not for a quick way out of his predicament, not for an anaesthetic to dull the pain of apparent hopelessness, and not for a panacea imbued with the complexion of fantasy. No, he cries out for wisdom and understanding.

Now, I realise that this sounds weird to a generation brought up on instant gratification, fast knowledge, bewildering amounts of information and the wallpaper-like surroundings of immediate judgement and dramatic analysis. Why wait? Why dwell in a space of indeterminate questioning or unsatisfying waiting? Why not, as the credit card advert once tempted us, “take the waiting out of wanting”?

Well, wisdom is learned, not bought. And it is learned by paying attention to what makes the world what it is, what makes people who they are, what gives meaning to what appears to be formless and void, what makes sense of lived experience in community with others, many of whom have no interest in becoming wise at any price. Wisdom – which is more than the product of information plus knowledge plus judgement – lies at the heart of any consideration of justice… precisely because justice can never be subject to whim or trend or fashion or even mere popularity. If Benjamin Disraeli was right when he said, “Justice is truth in action”, then it must be truth driving the action and not simply action defining what is deemed to be true.

I am sorry if all this sounds a bit abstract or academic, but justice is not a simple thing which can be claimed without examination and argument. Justice has to be seen to have a deeper foundational rationale, rooted in and emanating from a clearly understood anthropology… which knows why it thinks people matter essentially. And I’d like to say briefly what this looks like in a Judaeo-Christian narrative – indeed, the very narrative which gave birth to and has shaped the system of justice developed in England over the centuries.

To do this I need to tell a story. Way back in the Hebrew Bible the people who saw themselves as God’s people lost the plot – in more senses than one. First they lost sight of the story that had shaped – and was intended to motivate – their common life and relationships. Then, second, they lost their place in the land they took for granted as their own, and found themselves learning the lessons that can only be learned in the desert of exile.

Yet, right at the outset of their settlement of the so-called Land of Promise, they had been instructed to actively and religiously re-tell the story of their liberation from oppression in Egypt. The year and the seasons were dotted with festivals during which the community and its constituent families would rehearse story-telling and ritual, all bound up in the production of food and the economics of trade. The point of these was not to make life miserable for them, trapping them in a dour-but-romanticised myth of past generations – a sort of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, vying with each other for how bad their childhoods had been. Rather, this active and costly re-telling was designed to hold the people to truths that wisdom depended upon: they themselves had been dispossessed and landless slaves – and so should treat the poor and destitute with kindness and generosity; they themselves had been captive and unable to save themselves – and so should set people free and give undeserved grace; that they themselves had had nothing to call their own – and so should never forget that the accumulation of stuff, the acquisition of status and the appropriation of land must never be ends in themselves, but a means of generous and wise common flourishing.

Bradford CathedralIn fact, one of the most vivid of these festivals is described (or perhaps prescribed) in Deuteronomy 26 where the first ten per cent of your harvested produce should be brought to the priest whereupon you would recite a creed. How exciting is that? And the creed would begin: “My father was a wandering peasant…” In other words, the opening line of the story is a blunt articulated reminder that none of us can simply depend on the very things we think give us meaning. (We behave differently towards the homeless if we remember that once we were homeless.) In other words, regularly check that you are building the foundations of your life on something durable and not the shifting sands of material stuff.

Now, the point of this is simple. What unites both judge and accused, advocate and prisoner, is a common humanity which, if morality is to mean anything and justice is to have any currency beyond the pragmatic, not only imbues the legal process with dignity – building toward the common good – but also establishes the moral value of every human being. Justice takes people seriously, refuses to make excuses, but sees the dignity beneath the flawed and often appalling surface of greed, cruelty or selfishness.

And for this to flourish – for people in a community to flourish – those who frame justice need to remember their story, the story of mortal human beings in a contingent world, and to look wisely and deeply into the assumptions that make us think the whole justice project is worth investing in in the first place.

In other words, we need to think deeply about what we believe makes justice matter, and not allow justice to be shaped by political whim, economic pressure or media fashion.

Now, you, like those of us who serve through the church, are often on the receiving end of the media’s ‘wisdom’ (which, being meant ironically, I put in inverted commas) – usually in those unusual cases where fine judgements are hard to explain in simple language. You, too, are subject to a public that doesn’t understand legal process and shows little consideration of the consequences of their opinions. For example, if we did lock ‘em up and throw away the key, someone somewhere will have to pay. Not seeking rehabilitation or re-education will probably end in recidivism where there is no incentive or opportunity for changing one’s life or company. But, like bishops – who apparently do nothing all day other than dress up and argue about sex – you have to press on with your vocation whether you are understood, respected or liked… or not.

This service is evidence of the value placed by both church and civic authorities on the work you do and the way you exercise wise judgement on behalf of the rest of us. We thank you for the service you do.

And I would join those who wish to remind you of the seriousness of your task, the import of maintaining and securing a system of justice that is never capricious, and the essential need to dig deep into our corporate memory where we find the foundational narratives that give our justice system its very meaning.

I also hope, of course, that the bloke we caught on CCTV burgling my house and nicking my car and computer last August will one day appear before you in order to discover afresh that wise lawyers and judges have a responsibility on behalf of the rest of us to give him his full moral value as a human being.

May God bless you and us as we serve the common good, rooted in a conviction that justice goes to the heart of the character of God himself and should, in one sense, be (pace Disraeli) God’s character in action.

The body of Muammar Gaddafi is in cold-storage in Misrata. It is unclear how exactly he died because different people keep giving different accounts of his capture and death. What we do know is that people are queuing up to see the corpse with their own eyes, to take photos and celebrate that he has gone.

And what is wrong with that? Another example of liberal Western sensitivity that hates to see blood and is too wet or squeamish to be happy at the departure of a tyrant?

The world cannot be worse off without Gaddafi holding any power. The madman is now gone for ever and his tyrannical empire is shattered. Good.

But, as long as we think the rule of law is essential to any civilised or governable democratic society, we cannot pick and choose when the rule of law should apply. Gaddafi’s brutality might well provoke a vengeful response from those who suffered, but suffering does not justify sidelining the rule of law when personally convenient. If we want Robert Mugabe to be held to account by the rule of law which he has abandoned in Zimbabwe, we have to hold to its universality. We cannot hold him to it while allowing others to dismiss it in acts of vengeance. A greater deterrent to other dictators would have been to see Gaddafi and his sons in court, not in fridges.

A civilised society must always see the human body as more than just ‘stuff’. That’s why we bury our dead with dignity. That’s why we don’t just chuck our loved ones into the sea as if the body meant nothing once the life has left it. The body matters.

So, what does it say to us and our children when we glory in the brutalised and torn body of another human being? Is it justified by voyeurism? Or vengeance? Or does it represent a more worrying and capricious reduction of human value?

Muammar Gaddafi was an execrable tyrant who caused misery to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But, using that fact to justify summary execution, physical torture, desecration of a body bodes ill for when we want to argue that bodies are to be honoured, torture to be rejected, murder to be abhorred. We can’t pick and choose when the rule of law is to apply.