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Rule of Law Service Sermon, 2018

by Gerry Lynch last modified 11 Mar, 2018 06:24 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached at the annual Rule of Law Service in Salisbury Cathedral on 11 April 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Readings: Magna Carta (1215), Clauses 39 and 40; Leviticus 19.9-15; Matthew 25.31-45.

Events in Salisbury last Sunday and throughout the week have heightened the significance of this service for the Rule of Law.

In every community there are moments when you think you are standing on solid ground and suddenly drop below what felt safe and secure, discovering something new that previously had not been known.

It is not yet entirely clear what happened last Sunday, nor are we certain who is responsible, but today, on the Sunday after this serious attack, we pray for Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia; for Det Sgt Nick Bailey; and for all who were contaminated by the nerve agent and have suffered sickness.

And we give thanks for the emergency services, fire, police and ambulance, and for our hospital caring for the sick.

‘Doing your duty’ in these circumstances speaks well of the individuals involved but it also speaks well about all those who work in these services and care for the public without discrimination. We also have reason to give thanks for the military working to ensure decontamination and the researchers at Porton Down seeking to identify the origins of what was used so as to help hold to account those responsible for this attack.

As well as a shocking attack on two individuals, this was a violation of our community. The Rector of St Thomas’ is planning a service in a month’s time to bring together those most closely involved in the events of the last week, to pray for the cleansing and healing of the people and the place that has been violated.

Most of us were unaware of Sergei Skripal living in Salisbury. He had lived in an underworld of espionage in which he had broken the ‘rule of law’ and got entangled in forces way beyond his control, but the spy swap by which he came to the UK should have drawn a line on his past in such a way as to give him the safety and security of a new life here in the UK.

It is not simple and we do not know all the facts but there is a lot from the last week in Salisbury to bring to this service for the Rule of Law.

Those who uphold the law have to think a great deal about truth. “What is truth?” asked Pilate when passing judgement on Jesus. We have all had to think about truth recently in what is said to be, “a post-truth society”, in which there are ‘alternative facts’ with allegedly ‘fake news’.  When you can’t tell truth for falsehood, trust and confidence break down. It is deeply corrosive of good relations. We all know truth can be difficult to tell, and always there is spin, but truth matters.

When survivors from Grenfell Tower came out of the service in St Paul’s cathedral on the six month anniversary of the fire, they said that what they wanted is “truth and justice”. No one said it is impossible to provide. It might be difficult but we all knew what is needed to begin to restore confidence again.

Truth and justice are the touchstones of the Rule of Law. Those responsible for upholding the law have to be about the truth and seek justice even when it is difficult and personally costly.

The readings in this service are an encouragement.

One reading from Magna Carta, of which this cathedral has by far the best of the four surviving earliest versions, provided a framework for just dealings with one another in religion, business, what we now call civil society and law.  ‘To no one may justice be sold, denied or deferred.’

One reading from Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures, after careful provision for the poor to glean the remains of the harvest and fallen grapes, like the gleaning that goes on now of food in the field in danger of being wasted and the use of produce near its sell-by date, justice shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.

But then we had the High Sheriff’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells a story about the way Christ is met in welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. This is a story about God’s judgement of us and the values by which we live. It is a very searching story in which what it is to be truly human is to care for the vulnerable and outcast and live by love and mercy.

Our Archbishop, Justin Welby, has a book out this week, Reimagining Britain. The Britain I grew up in was one that had come through two world wars and was determined to build a better future for its children. There was a commitment to housing, health and education. It seemed that things could only get better.

The Britain we live in now is more fractious and divided. It lacks political coherence. We do not have an agreed vision of the sort of society we want to be. In every area of our public life it is clear we are either unable or unwilling to provide adequate funding for housing, education, healthcare or social services, for the emergency services, prisons, the armed forces, or for our county councils. You only have to look at the state of our roads to realise we have a problem.

We want to be a compassionate society but we are no longer sure about welfare because it creates dependency. We want to give ‘hand-ups’ rather than ‘hand-outs’ even though some people are long-term sick or permanently disabled and unable to work. They need to be cared for.

If a problem with welfare is that it has created dependency, there is also a problem with politics in that electors have become customers and consumers of services rather than active participants in society. Yet those of us in public life know that it is active participation that builds relationships and community. It is what the High Sherriff recognises and wants to encourage by making the awards listed on the back of the service sheet.

What faces us is partly a technical, economic and political problem about wealth creation and its distribution but at root it is a question of values and whether we live for ourselves – “me first” - or the common good.

“Love God and love your neighbour as yourselvelf” is a good summary of the teaching of Jesus.

The Archbishop’s book is an attempt to raise a public debate about our beliefs and values and the institutions to which we are committed - family, community and business ,as well as the state. His argument is,

“for the common good… we need a common effort: courageous coalition, cohesive and generous working, patience, endurance and stability among the actors who are crucial to the future of our country. There are potential foundations for hope, but they rely on builders. The culture of dependency that is so often part of human nature is the principal barrier to building onto the foundations. We cannot rely on ‘them’ doing the work, where ‘they’ is someone or something else, be it government or the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

    Justin Welby Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, Bloomsbury 2018, p. 236.

What Archbishop Justin is arguing for is our working together for the common good, taking the trouble to articulate what we mean by it, and living by values that are not uniquely Christian, but which build community with courage, stability and common purpose. He sees this as laying foundations for hope and renewing hope is a precious task.

If last week was a disturbing week, I can’t think of a better way to begin this week than in this service which renews our values and the principles of a good society. Today, in Salisbury we recommit ourselves to the rule of law under the God of truth and justice who is the judge of all.

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