Before you speak the words of argument and judgement that make up the legal year, you come to listen to the words of Jesus Christ who is God’s argument and God’s judgement upon the world, lest in failing to hear his words you speak only your own words in an echo-chamber where the administration of law is shrunken and one-dimensional. So you and we come not just to fix our eyes on Jesus as the Letter to the Hebrews has it, but to listen to what he says – and act upon it.
Jesus speaks of the need to build on rock, not sand; and who of us would deny the truth of what he says? For you and for us all in this culture the rock is the rule of law, which we regard as the foundation of a civilised society worthy of the human being and even of God. Without it, human societies become little more than a brute play of power, in which the strong trample on the weak, human dignity counts for nothing and God is completely ignored. Such societies are built on sand. When the flood rises and the river bursts against them, they quickly fall, and great is their ruin, as history well attests.
The rule of law is surely one of humanity’s greatest achievements – a slow and hard-won achievement through time and not yet complete, since the rule of law is always under threat and therefore requires constant vigilance. It has come through a long and arduous journey marked by the law-codes of the Ancient Near East, the Bible, Roman law, the canons of the Church and British common law. The law which is our rule is a grand amalgam of many cultures, crises, insights and needs. It is nothing if not polyphonic.
To speak of a rule of law which applies to all people in all situations is to point to a transcendent truth about the human person and human society which looks beyond the individual and individual communities, beyond particular times and cultures – a truth which produces a set of values which we regard as universal.
The law may change, as it has through time; there will always be a need for law reform. But if that change and that reform unsettle or even violate the transcendent truth at the heart of the rule of law we are moving from rock to sand; and that is not the change or reform we need. It will not lead to justice.
This sense of truth sits uncomfortably perhaps in a postmodern moment which prefers “my” truth and “my” values to anything that might be thought transcendent. In such a moment, “my” truth” and “my” values have the last word, even when at odds with the common good. No-one surely would deny the importance of personal freedom, nor its fragility – and therefore the need to protect it in law. But the question is how to set personal freedom and individual choice in harmony with the common good – in harmony with transcendent truth and the universal values which derive from it.
Once we speak of this harmony, we are speaking of justice, with all the mighty charge which that word bears – a word accorded to some of you as a title which is a reminder of what you are charged to do.
The justice which is the bedrock of a civilised society embodies a wise balance – a balance of the individual and the community, of the particular and the universal, of freedom and constraint, of mercy and rigour, of change and changelessness. The letter of the law will doubtless guide you in the search for that balance; so too will your skill in interpreting the letter. But more will be needed, which is one reason why we gather in this way in this place today.
Insofar as you find that balance through this legal year you will be not self-serving legal functionaries building on sand but wise servants of justice building on rock. You will have a deep and strong foundation. Though floods may rise and the river burst its banks, there will be no great ruin but instead a true flourishing, because you will stand firm and so too will the community which you serve.