The High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire's Legal Service 2010
Sermon preached at St Mary's Church, Nottingham,by Rev. Christopher Harrison
The parish of All Saints, St Mary and St Peter, Nottingham
Christopher Harrison home page
As always, it is a privilege and an honour for St Mary’s church to host this annual service, which is a central event in St Mary’s civic responsibilities. It reminds us that all our institutions, both local and national, ultimately receive their mandate from God, who is the divine source of all existence. This means that we are accountable, in the end, not just to one another but also to God. The role and institution of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, of course, go a long way back in the history of our land. When I was welcoming a visitor from overseas recently, I was telling him about Robin Hood, who goes back almost as far, and I have to say he immediately brushed that aside, saying, ‘When we talk about Nottingham we think rather of the Sheriff – and also of the cricket’.
There’s a disturbing book written a few years ago called The Children of Men, in which the author P D James describes this country in the year 2020. The crucial difference between her world and ours is that for many years, now, no children have been born anywhere at all on earth. The world is adjusting to the likelihood that humanity will become extinct, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to provide economically for an aging population. Since there are no babies for christenings, kittens are baptised instead. But perhaps most chillingly, Great Britain is now ruled by a dictator, known as the Warden, assisted by a small National Council. Regional and local councils implement the National Council’s decisions. Parliament has only a nominal role and meets for only one month each year. It takes a while before you realise that there are no courts. Laws are enforced by the brutal State Security Police, and the whole of the Isle of Man has become a dumping ground for all offenders, major and minor.
This is an extreme example of a society in which things have gone terribly wrong, under the shadow of a hypothetical global calamity. But one of the most telling of James’ insights is that most people seem perfectly happy. They are reasonably comfortable and secure; law and order are maintained at a high level; they don’t have to worry about difficult political decisions, as there is no public debate. We are left, then, with a strong message about how centralisation of power, and the gradual removal of all the checks and balances, can be accepted by the majority of people – with dissident minorities being firmly put down.
We’ve seen not totally dissimilar political outcomes in certain countries over the last century, with disastrous consequences. Now we may say, ‘well nothing like that could ever happen in this country’. To be sure, we have one of the oldest traditions of open political debate and of political checks and balances in the world, and the British people are increasingly confident and vocal in saying ‘no’ to abuses of political power. However, as we give thanks in this service for our inheritance of freedom, it behoves us all not to be complacent, or to forget how easy it is for precious freedoms won by our forebears to be gradually eroded or weakened by new forms of power.
Of course an independent and apolitical judiciary is one of the key elements of a strong and resilient democracy. It was impressive, recently, to see the Supreme Court of this country take the Treasury to task for making an order, without parliamentary authority, allowing it to freeze the assets of terrorist suspects before they had been charged. This is something which many people might instinctively have gone along with, but it would have eroded a basic legal right. One worries, however, when we hear of cases such as that of the government legal adviser who told her minister that going to war with Iraq was probably illegal, but this couldn’t be tested in the courts; the minister’s reaction was apparently that this was good, as it gave the government more room for manoeuvre. An example, perhaps, of the temptation to see the courts as a hindrance rather than a strength and safeguard to democracy? Moving from the national to the local level, I gather that there is an increasing tendency to keep certain kinds of minor case from going to court at all – which raises the question of when, if at all, administrative efficiency and cost saving should take precedence over a defendant’s right to a proper trial.
I don’t think it’s entirely cynical to say that in most if not all of our national institutions – political, corporate, public and private sectors, and even the Church – there are always people who will tend to draw excessive power to themselves. Sometimes that’s a consequence of systems and structures that get things done, and we all know, I’m sure, how organisations can go round and round in circles without dynamic and focussed leadership. But we have to be aware of undue concentration of power when it happens, and place appropriate limits on it. Also, while today’s technology gives us huge opportunities for sharing and spreading information, it also brings new risks in that data on people and organisations can be gathered and stored electronically – and deleted – to an unprecedented degree. For both of these reasons, therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we cherish and indeed strengthen a judiciary – a legal system – which is impartial, open to anyone to make use of it, underpinned by the sharpest possible analysis of new areas of legal concern which arise from modern technologies; and which makes full use of the opportunities offered by our legal ties with Europe without being straitjacketed by them. It needs to be a legal system which can be used effectively by minorities (remember the old adage about how a society should be judged on the basis of how it treats its minorities); and whose guardians, its elder statesmen and women, are not afraid to stand up to attempts to influence or even intimidate them.
I would like to think that this nation’s judiciary would find allies, when standing firm against the centralisation of political power, in the local authorities. When I look back to my time 25 years ago as a civil servant in Whitehall, however, I do wonder whether local authorities today have as much power as than they did then. And of course the Churches and all faith groups should also be ready to take a stand against erosion of freedoms, the denial of basic rights, anything in our social, economic and political systems which demeans and degrades people rather than empowering and resourcing them. This is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ opposition to those of his time who abused the political and religious power which they held. In the book I referred to earlier, P D James described the Church as having become little more than a vehicle for corporate social responsibility and sentimental humanism – let’s make sure that we don’t lose our cutting edge in such a way.
As we give thanks today, then, for the Queen’s Peace, for our heritage, and for our freedoms under the law, let us not assume that these will always remain intact without constant care and vigilance.
Let us resolve afresh to conserve the best elements of our institutions while being ready to modify them to meet new challenges.
Let us pray that all those here today who bear particularly heavy burdens of responsibility within the life of this city and county may be guided and strengthened by God, and inspired by the great pioneers of democracy of the past.
And may we all work together to build a future in which everyone in this city and county may thrive and flourish, and have the opportunity to realise God’s purpose for them. Amen.