Visitors to ancient cities like York enjoy discovering quaint and remote features: the Shambles; archaeological remains of successive eras under the cathedral; hidden misericordiae within, saints and gargoyles without.
The Shambles area provides just a hint of the chaotic life in early times; narrow alleys, stalls, clamour, smells and all sorts of behaviour, seen and unseen. Fairness and justice were features of common law but may have felt a little out of place here.
These overhanging buildings, now nicely renovated and refreshed, are only about 500 years old. Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then.
The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers.
In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. A recent post by The British Library notes:
The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.
God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.
I have written previously how the psalms tell us that the concepts of justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time. It should be in the DNA.
So here are some of the biblical building blocks of justice in the modern rule of law. They are fundamentally strong in this country despite some glaring blind spots. On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. (And as for equality, forget it. Buyers of The Big Issue, an Australian charity magazine, will recall a recent special edition devoted pages to the growing gap between rich and poor. How to convince societies and governments?)
The Easter story opens a new chapter of this search for justice and justification. We hear every year from Psalm 118 that Jesus was the building block, despised, rejected but destined to be the basis of a whole new world and a whole new way. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance.
This is what we shall sing on Sunday, again using that familiar Paul Stookey tune. All singers welcome to meet early on Sunday. Brian will lead us in another good sing.
I haven’t said much about the psalm, have I? Read it here> and note a familiar verse 24, and this in 22:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:
I include it not only for its intrinsic value but also to note that the Latin ‘caput anguli’ suggests it’s not the ‘chief’ in terms of size or weight, but the key at the top of the arch or corner of walls, holding it all together.