Address given at A Service to mark the start of the 2020 legal year

Law as vocation, law as framework, law as the constant doing right and justice as a culture that we share.

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 1st October 2020 at 11.00 AM

Over the last two weeks I have been moving into a newly refurbished Deanery. Furniture has arrived and my wife has watched the walls of her home be populated by portraits of my predecessors. Living with one Dean was apparently challenge enough. As boxes have been unpacked, my past has reared up before me. I have stumbled across my late father’s papers.

My father was a solicitor, and so was his father. Indeed, both my parents served their articles to my grandfather, at his offices in Waterfoot, in Lancashire. I grew up with the law, the plan was that it was my future. This is not the way my father hoped, that I would appear before judges.

Specifically, I grew up with law as a vocation. My father did not have a lively Christian faith. What he believed in was the law as a discipline, a way of thinking. He believed in commitments made, understood and sustained. It was important to him to be held personally accountable to a public code. He did not simply obey the law, for him law was a framework and a culture. It was reasoned and it mattered. As a teenager, at the Sunday lunch table, my father now working at the Law Society, I was schooled in a kind of courtroom.

Law as vocation, and law as framework. Law also as the great shared enterprise, the idea enshrined in Magna Carta that we are in this together - government and the governed bound by law - equally accountable, equally protected. Reading before I wrote this sermon I came across Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons. He imagines Thomas More arguing with his son-in-law, Roper, that even the Devil gets the benefit of law. Roper wants none of it, the Devil must be harried and harassed

…I'd cut down every law in England to do that!”

More replies:

'Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down… do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!'

Now, that is stirring stuff. The Law as shelter when the winds blow. Law as vocation, and framework; law as shelter. Good though it is, isn’t law more than that? I have been thinking about the oath you take. Coming here, I had to vow, in Latin, that I would embrace Christ’s religion and undertake, on retirement, to hand back the Deanery. Having just moved in that is a promise I already regret. You though, you swear more, you swear that you

will do right to all manner of people

Isn’t that a pledge to something more energetic then offering shelter? I wonder what you and we have in mind when we speak of doing right?

This is getting clumsy, I speak to you about what you do, about your expertise. I must shift the ground and speak of things of which I know. So, let us turn to that passage from Exodus we heard.

you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit

The Book of Exodus describes the ‘way out’ for the people of Israel. It is an escape from the oppression of Pharaoh. The story is familiar enough: a migrant people, once welcome, later enslaved in Egypt. It is worth pausing on the detail. Egypt was a land of plenty and Pharaoh was a person of power. We soon learn that there were limits to that plenty and no limits to that power.

'All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh's. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other' - Genesis 47:20-21

This is a story that begins in a savage experience of inequality. The Israelites lack power and they lack resource. Remember, Pharaoh directs them to make bricks without straw.

'Thus says Pharaoh, 'I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.'' - Exodus 5:10-11

The Israelites are crushed by stress. They live in a land where community has collapsed, a place where there is no neighbour, there are just others. They groan under that injustice,

'Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.' - Exodus 2:23

It is not fair. There is a deep childhood instinct that makes us cry out ‘It is not fair’. Years ago, I worked in a Cambridge College where the Bursar was a Prince amongst such men, wise, and humane. He was a Bursar who looked after the asset and read Dante in Italian. He used to tell a story of his school days. A test had produced a poor result. Boys were flogged for failing Greek. He was flogged for failing Greek. I heard the story more than once there was always a pause and then ‘I did not study Greek, never sat the test’. It was not fair. It was just a story, but it struck me that this amusing man had been formed, a little, in that instant. He was made into someone to whom things like that were done. He became just a little detached.

Exodus describes the way out of that injustice. The journey, famously goes by way of the wilderness. We think of rock and sand. Better think of it as a place where there is nothing to keep you alive. First you lose community and then you lose all resource. The power of Pharaoh was scarcity, bricks without straw; the power of the wilderness was absence. Each of us alone and afraid.

From our point of view though, the interesting thing is what comes next. Exodus brings us to Sinai and the giving of the Law. The Law provides the community we long for. In Egypt there was inequality and no neighbour. At Sinai, even in the midst of the wilderness, we learn to live in relation to one another and discover that a requirement falls on us all. Justice is a mutual obligation, or it is not fair. The ten commandments lay down the foundation - the claims of mother and father, of neighbour and relationship. Our text this morning picks up the theme. By oath you are bound to

do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this Realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will

We heard the demand

You shall not spread a false report… You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice

We live in relationship and justice makes neighbours. Justice gives us community.

I asked if Law was a shelter. It is more than that. A shelter is a thing you build and repair to when those winds blow. I do not think that is what you give us. You do right and you keep doing right. Yours is a task of ceaseless vigilance, it is effort and attention. Justice, the business of living as neighbours is not a kind of lockdown where we all know our own spaces and feel safe. It is, instead, the constant business of managing relationship, recognizing the neighbour who I would otherwise make strange. That is exactly how the God of justice understands his law. It is not once given, it is a thing to do and go on doing.

'May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy...
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more'
- Psalm 72:2-7

I presume a lot in daring to tell you about what it is that you do. I do that because it is my sure conviction that we need you more than ever. Those winds are blowing hard and cold. We are traipsing back to Egypt, into deeper inequalities. Worse, we justify that enterprise because we claim that merit and the market tell us that this deepening injustice is actually fair and right. Mobility and opportunity, ambition and aspiration are suddenly our watchwords. For years, as a Dean in an English city, I sat in services for bright eyed school leavers hearing them told again and again to seize the day and make dreams come true. You can be whatever you want to be. Aspire, Perspire, Achieve. That is a downright lie. It is the new commandment to make bricks without straw. Where is the promise that you make, the promise we should all know by heart, the promise to do right? That is the promise that makes neighbours, gives justice and never condones oppression.

In the Abbey, the place where we gather to grieve, to remember and to celebrate, I give thanks to God for the oath you have taken and the service you provide. We will pray for you in the year ahead. We will pray too for justice and for community, we will pray that God will make neighbours out of strangers and teach us all to do right.

That much is easy. More difficult, but increasingly urgent is the question of how we build a common culture and interrogate our values. More difficult is how we agree that we should all do right. Your learning, and your deep and shared commitment to doing right gathers in the Abbey this morning. How, though, do we carry that out with us beyond our doors? How do we affirm that what is so important and so precious to us is better and more generally understood? How do we communicate a better appreciation of justice and a proper recognition of your vocation in a community that can seem hostile and is certainly ill informed?

It is not enough that we thank God for what you do. We need to declare it and teach it, defend it and insist upon it.

Law as vocation, law as framework, law as the constant doing right and justice as a culture that we share.

My father is not here to see this, but I hope we can agree I was listening, all those years ago.