Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Justice in Battle

Tonight was an evening of wigs, robes and ceremonial chains.  My vice-presidential cross looked modest in comparison.   I sat next to a man who asked whether I was there because my husband was “someone”. (I replied that of course he was. But so were we all).

I was a guest of the High Sheriff of East Sussex attending the annual judicial service at Battle parish church, along with various mayors and local dignitaries.  It was an opportunity to pray for the judges in the area, and for them to recommit themselves to public service.  

The judges, standing robed and wigged at the front of the church, were asked to affirm that they would protect our freedoms, contribute to the community, take special care of the poor, and do all this “in a spirit of honesty, service and peace”.  Each replied “With the help of God, we will.”

The service started with a Charles Wesley hymn, and I opened my mouth to belt it out....before realising that no-one else was singing at a volume higher than a mumble.  But the service had a familiar theme - of “justice and holiness”.  Having spent the week of Methodist Conference talking, with Roger Walton, about holiness and justice, I was rather thrilled to see that the Presidential theme was already spreading through the Church of England! 

But it was a slightly more judicial take on the theme.  In his sermon the Dean talked about how holiness can contribute to justice, giving the example of the 17th century priest Samuel Fairborough who, after stealing some pears as a child, had his conscience “awakened by the terror of the law” and thereafter became “the personification of holiness”.  So justice can lead to holiness.  And in answer to the question whether holiness can lead to justice, the Dean quoted “the great preacher, John Wesley” who said that it is a holy people who will reform society.  Holiness can lead to justice.
The High Sheriff of East Sussex,
Michael Foster DL
The High Sheriff of East Sussex is Michael Foster, formerly the MP for Hastings.  I first met Michael when he came to speak to the young people’s group at my church in the late 1990s about faith and politics.  I remember being impressed at the time that an MP would travel up from the south coast on a Sunday evening to talk with 15 young people who lived outside his constituency and so could never vote for him.  Latterly I got to know him as Chair of the Methodist Parliamentary Fellowship as well as the minister responsible for bringing in Civil Partnerships.  Since finishing as an MP, Michael has returned to legal practice and now acts as his county’s High Sheriff, bringing together the judiciary, politics, civil society and the voluntary sector.

Methodists together at the East Sussex judicial service
There was a reception after the service, and having wandered around chatting to various mayors, the Methodists in the room, as often happens, began to congregate.  I was delighted to meet with local minister, Rev Peggy Heim, supernumeraries, wives and widows, and John, who told me he is the longest serving dry-cleaner in the country! 

So today I am left giving thanks for Methodists all over the country, serving their communities.  I pray for those who serve in our judiciary, along with prison officers, governors, and politicians who make decisions about the future of our prison service.  And I pray for those who personally experience criminal justice system, as criminals, accused and victims - and especially those who this night are in jail, on probation, or in police cells. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice

Which is more than liberty.

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