Speech At Chester Cathedral Matins Service

Five hundred years ago last week, Martin Luther threw his stone into the pond, and the ripple effect continues, even today. On this 5th November, we remember the attempt by the conspirators to end the Protestant rule of James I; another attempt at counter-reformation that failed but left its own mark on our history. The office that I hold first emerged in 1515, two years before the events at Wittenberg and ninety years before the bungled attempt of Guy Fawkes and his colleagues. Into the 21st century the Law Officers continue to deal with “Gunpowder, treason and plot”, whether it be the need for us to give our consent to all prosecutions involving explosive substances, certain terrorism offences and some of the most serious offences against the state.

We are now in the season of remembrance, which makes the reading from Deuteronomy particularly appropriate. The words we heard are those of Moses as he spoke to the Israelites. They were words of remembrance, of valediction but with a firm eye on the future. Forty years after the Exodus began, they were delivered on the first day of the eleventh month in their calendar. It seems appropriate, in a service to mark the beginning of the Legal Year in Cheshire in the first week of our eleventh month, that today we should be reminded of his words of command about the laws to be observed in their new land. As Moses was not to join the Israelites and pass across the Jordan before his own death, it was important for him to remind them of their very own story to prevent it being misinterpreted, its fundamentals the subject of dispute and worst of all, forgotten.

He started by reminding them of the events that led to the Ten Commandments, and that no other nation had laws as sound as theirs. But these aren’t words of self-congratulation. Instead they are words of exhortation, of warning and of the need to take care, by making sure that the laws are not forgotten; making sure that they are known to their descendants. The tablets of stone alone were never going to be enough to sustain Israel. No, its people had to live actively under the rule of law, observe it and pass it on to the next generation. The Israelites had form for not remembering things, as Moses knew to his cost after having to make a return journey up Mount Sinai to replace the tablets he smashed after witnessing the effects of the forgetfulness of his very own people. The Israelites response to his lengthy exposition in Deutoronomy is not recorded, but we can guess that Moses was not taking no for an answer this time. Israel had multiplied greatly in the years since Mount Sinai. Many would not have been alive at the beginning of the Exodus. The story of their nation and its laws needed to be told, retold and told again. This was not a negotiation or an election. And yet, the language of the covenant runs strongly throughout these passages. In return for their obedience to God, the Israelites would receive a new land, triumph over their enemies and live under his protection. That was the promise, which was about to be realised. It was an offer that this nomadic people could take, or leave, if they didn’t choose to cross the Jordan.

The underlying message was that for this to have any real meaning, Israel had to believe in the rule of law, to practice it in spirit as well as form when dealing with each other and with God.

In the 20th century, we saw how appearance and reality could sharply differ when it came to the rule of law. At the Paviak Prison Museum in Warsaw, the bureaucracy of despotism is laid out for all to see; arrest warrants, permits and neatly typed orders that resulted in the incarceration and death of people whose transgression was to be of a different ethnicity or political persuasion from the regime that had occupied the country. By the time of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, the appearance of due process had collapsed, revealing the summary executions and massacres that were the true face of the Nazi regime. The 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union ostensibly guaranteed fundamental rights under the law, but the reality was that its provisions were used to ban all political parties other than one. The rule of law existed on paper, but not in the hearts and minds of rulers and people. Without a true belief, it meant nothing.

In the Second Reading, on the last night before his crucifixion, Christ sets out a message of love, promising the help of the Holy Spirit to all those who keep his commandments. Indeed, the word “Advocate” used in this version, becomes “Helper”, “counsellor” and, in the King James Version, “comforter”. Not all of these words mean exactly the same thing, at first blush. A “comforter” implies someone who says and whatever you want them to say. An “advocate” or “counsellor” is someone who gives you the advice that you need to hear, even if it is deeply uncomfortable. But, thinking a little more about it, the King James version is closest to the mark. The way to true comfort, true peace will be achieved by a process that is difficult and challenging. It is not the job of the Holy Spirit to re-inforce falsehoods or untruths, but to help us to challenge them, bring them down and in their place, bring us all to a greater comfort, a greater truth.

The Book of Common Prayer at the end of the Communion prayer for the “whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth” invokes Christ as “our only mediator and advocate” as he is similarly described in all prayers for the clergy and people in the various orders of service and in their modern versions too. Christ is described as our advocate in the First letter of John the Evangelist; he is the mediator for the propitiation of the sins of the whole world. As we celebrate the role that lawyers play in maintaining the rule of law with an independent judiciary and an independent legal profession, we too realise that words on the page of a statute or a leading authority are never enough, because it takes advocacy to bring them to life and meaning. The advocacy of the criminal barrister, seeking to persuade a jury of the merits of their client’s case, or indeed the advocacy of those who seek to challenge Government and its actions. Without advocacy, carried out according to a code of conduct that requires honesty, integrity and independence, then there is no interface between the public and the law itself, and no means of developing the law to meet changing circumstances.

Sir Francis Bacon, who took office as Solicitor General just two years after the Gunpowder Plot, is remembered as a great philosopher and writer, but his words on the law in 1593 are worth recalling: “Laws are made to guard the rights of the people, not to feed the lawyers. The laws should be read by all, known to all. Put them into shape, inform them with philosophy, reduce them in bulk, give them into every man’s hand.” More than an echo of Moses here, I suggest. The modern drive for greater Public Legal Education is the latest manifestation of this view, and those of us who call for greater simplicity and codification of statutes are following Bacon too. In every person’s hand the rule of law will live and have true meaning.

Christ’s advocacy for us is far more than temporal. Like the best client, we have to give him consistent and truthful instructions about ourselves and our frailties. We have to, as Luther said, have faith in our hearts and to be ready to have a direct relationship with God in order to allow the plea in mitigation to have real power. The need for our spiritual advocate to be clear, objective and unemotional is just the same as in this world. The case knowledge of the advocate means that they are an invaluable source of advice and counsel as to the right course of action for us to take. Christ is our advocate and we are his clients, should we wish to retain his services. The choice is ours. The need for temporal advocacy may be clear to most of us here today, but the need for His spiritual advocacy is ever present and just as real.