Association of City and Town Sheriffs of England and Wales
Sermon preached at St Mary’s church, Nottingham by Rev Christopher Harrison
6th October 2013
Britain is a place which is good at cherishing its traditions, and I’m delighted that St Mary’s can play its part in your gathering this weekend. They connect us with our past, and with our heritage, and remind us that many of the institutions which we take for granted today have ancient roots, and were often fought for at great cost. The role of sheriff in the cities and towns of England and Wales, represented in this church this morning, is of course an honour to those on whom it is conferred, and we celebrate the contributions to local society which have been made by all those who have, and have had, the privilege of serving in this manner.
I do hope, however, that those who have gazed upon the procession of sheriffs past and present who have walked through Nottingham today aren’t simply left with a sense of bewilderment, and that they don’t just conclude that this is an archaic ritual with no relevance to modern society. There have at times been bursts of political energy, across this country as whole, which have sought to modernise – to modernise sometimes for its own sake, it has seemed, sometimes quite rightly to learn from the past and improve how we do things in the present. But we also need to beware of the temptation to believe that the current generation always knows best – that we are at liberty to discard the inheritance of the past on the assumption that what we put in its place will by definition be better.
Of course the role of sheriff in those of our cities and towns which have such a position is usually a very ancient one, with little if any political or legal power in society. The traditional pageantry associated with the Shrievalty is fine, and important, and just as we in the Church should not be embarrassed by wearing costumes from a different era, so we should be proud of the distinctive robes, with all their historic associations, which our sheriffs wear today. But I do hope that an occasion like this can do more than just leaving us with the satisfaction of renewing links between old colleagues and friends, and reinforcing the legacy of the past. Our society is under strain in so many ways. The responsibilities placed upon our local authorities are as weighty as they ever have been – one has only to think of the massive task of providing adult social care, children’s services, an effective local response to environmental issues, of meeting housing needs, and especially of being part of the support network for the ever increasing number of those in our cities who are living in poverty. Budgetary cuts, arguably borne particularly heavily by some of our largest cities, such as this one, make all these challenges even greater. Some who hold the office of sheriff have ancient connections with the legal system – but today’s legal system also faces huge demands. The workload for those who process the constant flow of cases; the delays faced by some of those who have to wait an inordinate length of time for their case to be heard; the cuts to the legal aid budget; not to mention the inability of the system to deal briskly, fairly and humanely with the huge backlog of immigration cases. And then there is the deeply unsettling question of how our national and international political and legal systems oversee and regulate all the advances of modern communications technology.
One has to wonder, sometimes, whether many of our institutional frameworks and systems are reaching not just overload but breaking point. A day like this, therefore, indeed a weekend like this, might make us think of a past when things were simpler, the pace of life was slower, and issues were more straightforward. A time, perhaps, when rulers like King Solomon, as we heard in today’s first reading, could simply ask God to give them wisdom and everything would be all right. A time such as that when St Paul could rely upon the governing authorities to govern in accordance with the will of God, as in our second reading, and so urge all Christians to obey them, without admitting the possibility of protest, of challenge to unjust laws, and of improvements in the political system. But of course there never was a golden age, however much we may like the romantic picture which this conjures up.
Most if not all of you sheriffs, currently serving or past holders of this office, have little or no formal legal or political power. But you doubtless have informal power and influence, through the people you work or associate with in the cities and towns of England and Wales which have the privilege of possessing this role. I believe that I articulate the views of many, certainly in this city, when I say that our institutions are struggling to keep up with the aspirations of ordinary people to live lives which are not dominated by anxiety and constant pressure; and that the basics of adequate food, work and even a reasonably warm home are slipping beyond the reach of more and more people. The digital age, cherished as it is by government, is simply posing added challenges to those people who find computers difficult; and that the growing distance of power from ordinary people – whether to a more and more centralised Whitehall, to Brussels, or to Washington DC – is adding to the problems.
Those of you who are visiting St Mary’s church today may well represent a range of religious faiths or be of no faith at all. The Church of England, in its role as the established Church of the nation, has a responsibility to reflect a broad diversity of Christian views, and to be a partner to other faiths at different levels of the community. But I hope you will all agree when I say that if we look at the example set by Jesus, as we read the gospels, we see someone for whom each individual was important, including and perhaps especially including the powerless and the voiceless; we see a man who was not afraid to challenge hypocrisy and the use of politics, religion and the law to oppress people; and someone who was in the end ready to sacrifice even his own life for what he believed was right. Life may be more complex today, but these values and principles never change very much. If we are to take them seriously, we should be setting ourselves a vision of a society which is rooted in communities where every person matters; where choice and opportunity in everyday life is enabled to flourish; and where the vulnerable and weak are not airbrushed out of the social and political picture but given respect and care.
You may say that all this is easy to describe and hard to disagree with. My concern is that even this common sense vision, based on the everyday values of most ordinary people, not just those of religious folk, is in danger of being lost to our nation. So shall we continue to sleep-walk away from the things that really matter – or can we find our way back, before it’s too late?