Skip to main content

Judges' Service

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Monday, 1st October 2007

Leviticus 19: 9-18; I Corinthians 12: 12-26

The charge is that two powerful drivers of government policy - that towards equality and that towards community cohesion - whilst seeming to be consistent with each other tend in practice to point in different directions.

The drive towards equality, evident in a series of regulations on employment equality, in the Equality Act 2006 and the proposed single equality bill, is based on the concept of individual human rights. The drive towards community cohesion, or to express it in the words of the Prime Minister last week, “a strong Britain that is a Britain of strong communities”, evident in political rhetoric and government action rather than legislation, is based on the concept of collective human responsibilities.

The concept of the human rights of each individual is grounded in the Judaeo-Christian belief that each human being is made in God’s image. That concept is fundamental to our understanding of society, but it needs constant protection, even in Britain. We pray at this time for the people of Burma and Zimbabwe and so many other countries around the world, where the concept is denied in practice even if it is recognised in principle. If each human being is of infinite worth, there must be equality of opportunity and equality of respect. That should not however lead to the relentless pursuit of the equality of individuals at all costs.

Individual rights and collective responsibilities: the two should go hand in hand. And yet the drive for equality runs the risk of damaging distinctive institutions and organisations in which individuals, collected together, exercise their human right to be different. Principal amongst these organisations are the churches and religious communities.

Churches and faith communities in Britain are practically and potentially major contributors to community cohesion. It is sometimes doubted today whether the Church still has the power to be effective glue for society. And critics of religion point to differences of belief and understanding between the faiths as indicators that conflict between religious communities is somehow inevitable. The evidence is to the contrary. Ten days ago I joined, with other representatives of the Christian churches in London, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders, at the end of the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and during the holy month of Ramadan, in an evening breakfast at the Central London Mosque. And I was proud that an initiative in which I was involved before I became Dean of Westminster was mentioned recently by the Secretary of State for Schools: the Church of England and the Muslim community plan to promote a joint Anglican and Muslim school, an academy in Oldham.

But are strong communities able to tolerate difference? They are. The book of Leviticus is sometimes perceived as negative and restrictive. Some of its provisions, however, are full of warm humanity. The first lesson this morning, read by the Lord Chancellor, in which farmers are instructed not to reap to the very edge of the field and not to strip their vineyards bare, arises out of a concern not only for the poor without land of their own to farm but also for the alien – the refugee and asylum seeker. Similar injunctions in the book of Deuteronomy remind the hearers that they were slaves in Egypt and must care for outsiders, those not of their own community.

Similarly, St Paul working out his extended metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, in the passage read by the Lord Chief Justice, reminds the Corinthians that the less respectable members are to be treated with greater respect. For, in the body, if one member suffers, all suffer together with it. This image is of the church as a strong and interdependent community caring for its own poor. But Jesus Christ himself both instructed and taught by example that there must be care and respect for those of other traditions, other ethnicities. Christians have not always succeeded in living out either the image of the body or the injunction to reach across barriers but both are part of the teachings of the church.

In practice, it is religious organisations in our increasingly atomised and individualised Britain that are the most effective builders of communities. Without the church’s historic work providing hospitals, schools and universities and without the community-building role of the church in the toughest inner cities and outer housing estates, where the only professional living there is the incumbent, and in the great deserted suburbs where family after family lives in ignorance of its neighbours, there would be no hope of building a Britain of strong communities.

The drive towards equality and the drive towards more cohesive communities need not be in conflict with each other but can go hand in hand. Both are founded within the religious traditions our society has inherited. The churches and faith communities should be able to make their major contribution to both drives. In the same way, individual rights and collective responsibilities should be pursued together. Individual rights should not be emphasised at the expense of people’s responsibilities in and to communities.

Eight hundred years ago today was born the future King Henry III, the builder of this church. He saw completed during his long reign the rebuilding of the 11th century church of St Edward the Confessor. He designed this Abbey church as a fitting shrine for the saint and a powerful symbol for the whole nation of the legitimacy of his reign, rooted in the religious traditions of the country and heir to the mantle of his royal and saintly forebear. For Henry III, its religious life was the glue that would bind his kingdom.

Eight hundred years later the challenge of cohesion may look different but remains essentially the same. Christianity and the other great religions that are now such a feature of our national life need not be seen as potentially damaging to our national identity, to “a strong Britain that is a Britain of strong communities”. Working together they can powerfully contribute to the building and re-building of our nation in the 21st century, ever old and ever new.

As today we pray for God’s blessing on the courts of our land in this coming year and for the true administration of justice, we pray for the makers of law and public policy that, together with men and women of goodwill, we may work to build a more cohesive and peaceful Britain of strong communities, acting together for the good of all who live here, rich and poor, native and alien, of every faith and none, in mutual respect and harmony.

Twitter logo Tweet this