This was the sermon delivered at the Annual High Sheriff’s Legal Service – St Mary’s, Nottingham on Sunday 22nd January 2012
It is a great privilege to be asked to preach at this service in this Jubilee year. In just two weeks time Her Majesty will have been Queen for 60 years following her accession to the throne on February 6th, 1952. She has given a magnificent example of service to the nation and the commonwealth throughout these 60 years. She has been sustained by support from her late mother, Prince Philip, her wider family, loyal staff but, above all, by the prayers of God’s people and her own clear personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. This she made plain again in her Christmas broadcast.
It is the privilege of those who serve as Judges, Lord Lieutenants, High Sheriffs and indeed as magistrates, chief constables and police officers, alongside bishops and clergy of the Church of England to have a special relationship and responsibility towards Her Majesty as monarch. This is expressed in the oaths we take on entering office.
In our service today we thank God for this calling and privilege. We are also reminded of our responsibilities which, whilst bounded by Parliament, are ultimately God given. We are responsible to answer to human authorities but ultimately to a much higher and greater authority, God himself.
You all know that around the world there are many sculptures, statues and pictures of the Goddess of Justice. You also know that classically she is blindfolded. Yet above the Old Bailey justice with sword in one hand and scales in the other is not blindfolded. This was clearly a deliberate statement by E.W. Mountford, the designer of the modern building which was opened in 1907.
So too was the carving of the inscription “defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer” over the main entrance.
Now our reading from James is addressed to church members and leaders about how they must avoid treating rich and poor differently in the context of church worship and gathering. There must be impartiality because both in creation and salvation all people are equal in God’s eyes. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ must apply to all people not simply those with whom we find it easy to get on, or with whom we think there might be advantage in getting on.
In his famous parable of the Samaritan (described by Jesus as compassionate rather than ‘good’) Jesus made it plain that anyone in need is our neighbour.
However the principles from James equally apply to how we treat people in society as a whole, and how they are treated in law. Impartiality is an important principle to be upheld.
The rich must never be allowed to get away with seeking to sway politicians or the courts in their favour because they are rich and powerful. In particular their wealth and power should never be used at the expense of the poor. This has always been and remains, a temptation. It must be resisted, and when it is not, recognised and dealt with firmly. Impartiality is a key principle in the exercise of the law.
But then so too is mercy. The exercise of mercy, as exemplified by the Samaritan, is a reflection of God’s character. God’s mercy is undeserved by us all but in Christ he offers us mercy.
‘Mercy’, as someone has said, ‘is compassion in action’. Or in longer terms, Portia’s great words to Shylock, in the Merchant of Venice:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows, the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the heart of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy.
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
The whole of the biblical record encourages us to ensure that the poor are not exploited, abused or oppressed. It calls on us to be merciful and compassionate. This is not to excuse wrong doing but it is to be aware of the grinding nature of poverty and its impact on people. It is to be conscious of the reasons some find themselves in poverty and what this can lead some people to do in seeking the welfare of their family. This may well then encourage us to act with mercy and compassion.
This is why, I think, lady justice is not blindfolded above the Old Bailey. In exercising judgement eyes need to be open to the sword and the scales, and above all to the person in front of us. What judgement is appropriate? What mercy and compassion might be required in the exercise of the law?
But let me return, finally, to the fact that this is a Jubilee year. The Mosaic Law has a Jubilee in it. Every 50th year Israel was supposed to hold a Jubilee which included provision for Land Return, the Release of Slaves and the Cancellation of Debts.
It is this vision of release that underlies our first reading today from Isaiah 61. Here God is announcing his intention to establish the jubilee for Israel once again. It is an inspiring vision. It is the one that Jesus himself used at the very beginning of his ministry as he read this passage in his home synagogue in Nazareth. He came to bring in God’s year of release – freedom and the cancellation of all our debts towards God.
In all the difficulties we currently face nationally and globally I think some reflections on the principles of Jubilee – re-establishing equity and equality for all are worth considering.
It is still the eschatological vision of the church – that there is coming a day and a time when God’s Kingdom will be established in all its fullness. A day, may I dare to say, when the need for police, magistrates and judges will be no more.
But we are not there yet! So in holding on to this vision of jubilee today we give thanks to God for the privilege of serving our monarch, our nation and our people in the ways we have been called to serve.
We also recognise afresh our responsibilities. May we exercise them well, with our eyes open to ensure we do so with impartiality. May we also know when and how to exercise mercy which reflects God himself. He has shown us his great mercy in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ; and in his final analysis “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”
The Rt Revd Paul Butler
Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham
22nd January 2012