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Matins attended by the Courts of Justice – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: Matins attended by the Courts of Justice

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: 8 October 2023,  The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.


On, or just before, 24 February, Cecilia Hardy was brutally stabbed just around the corner from Hungate, by the River Foss, about five minutes’ walk from this glorious cathedral church. A widow of limited means, she had what I think was probably the misfortune not to be killed outright, but spent two weeks on her deathbed almost certainly in considerable pain, before succumbing to her injuries in mid-March.

Such investigation of her death as took place, entirely conducted by men, concluded that the likely killer – one John Milner – had been acting in self-defence, although his immediate flight from the city might suggest that such a notion was not one on which the killer himself was relying. However, no record exists of his capture or of any subsequent trial that might suggest the late Ms Hardy ever received justice.

Lest you feel that I recount the sorry facts about this murder in order to score a point about the inadequacies of the legal system, I should assure those of you with any responsibility for the administration of justice in or around this great city of York that you are off the hook. Cecilia’s life was taken… in 1375.

That I am able to recount the sorry and unfinished tale of her murder is due to a remarkable and superbly produced website that has just been renovated and relaunched by the University of Cambridge. Entitled Medieval Murder Map, it features a selection of 14th Century coroners’ records from the cities of York, London and Oxford, and gives a fascinating if rather gory lens into the nature of life, death and justice, in an era when sheriffs were more than just ceremonial, the judiciary, as we know it, was only just beginning to evolve, and a professional police force was still nearly four centuries in the future.

And Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Which, in truth, is how we know who might have killed Cecilia Hardy, even if we do not know what became of the murderer. For it was because of the jurors gathered together by the coroner, drawn – as was then the custom – from the four nearest parishes around this sudden death: St Mary in Layerthorpe, St Cuthbert in Peaseholme Green, and St Andrew and St John the Baptist both of the city of York – it was those medieval jurors who swore on their ‘sacred oath’ that it was John Milner had killed this poor widow.

In the 14th Century jurors were, inevitably, all men – something which, of course, is obviously not the case in our own era. But that being said, they were drawn from a proper cross-section of the community on which they were called to sit in judgement.

And what is equally, and in some ways even more important, is that the local community was not merely involved in delivering the verdicts of coroners’ courts of their day – more often than not, it was also the local community that was involved in the first response to the discovery of a crime, including attempts to apprehend those responsible, through what was known as raising a ‘hue and cry’.

The Murder Map website describes this process as ‘a combination of a 999 call, police sirens, and a collective hunt for the criminal’, and it was nothing short of a legal obligation laid on all of the king’s subjects (women as well as men) by Edward I some ninety years before Cecilia Hardy met her sorry end.

All of which reminds us that, although today, in the majesty of this vast and splendid cathedral, we are welcoming such important people as solicitors, barristers (both juniors and silks), magistrates, coroners, district, tribunal and circuit judges, High Court Judges, and Justices of Appeal – each and every one of them highly trained in legal matters, and almost all of them salaried professionals – despite the fact that today’s service acknowledges a most necessary reality that the administration of the law and the maintenance of peaceful society is now, rightly, in the hands of experts – all of this reminds us that the upholding of what was once called The King’s Peace is a matter for us all – a matter for all of God’s children, and, indeed, a matter for God himself – which is why the prophet demands of us to

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!

 For, says the prophet, the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones  – compassion even on the like of poor Cecilia Hardy, and on the victims of the crimes perpetrated in this city and region over the centuries.

Now the prophet in our first reading was addressing a rather bigger issue than the murder of one poor and probably abused woman. The prophet was addressing the lot of the entire community – the community which he understood as being ‘the people of God’ – the Israelite people of Judah and Jerusalem. And the Israelites had – collectively –suffered something which, from both a religious and a sociological or political perspective, was even worse than murder.

For in 587BC, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple (which, in modern-day terms was more like destroying Buckingham Palace or the White House than even destroying York Minster), and carried everyone of prominence into a cruel exile in Babylon. And while we look on with horror at the appalling violence in and around Gaza unfolding in these last 24 hours, the events of the Sixth Century before the birth of Jesus represented something of far greater significance than the recent uprising by Hamas.

 For the Temple was understood – literally – as God’s dwelling place on planet Earth, and with its destruction an entire, vast community of people was effectively destroyed, with everyone of importance scattered into an exile that would, with a modern lens, utterly breach the Fourth Geneva Convention’s demands about the resettlement of a resident population. And, most importantly, to the Israelites, it appeared that not only had justice utterly and completely collapsed, but that the covenant relationship with God on which any notion of justice could be conceived had been irreparably, totally and permanently rendered null and void.

But, eventually, help was at hand – and it came from a most unlikely source. Because any study of any period of history tells us that no nation remains a super-power for ever – and after some fifty years, the Persians, under the leadership of their King, Cyrus, crushed the Babylonians and became the dominant force across the Middle East. And King Cyrus – whom this Israelite prophet very remarkably calls God’s shepherd, gentile though he was – Cyrus allowed and even encouraged this displaced community to return home, to rebuild the Temple, and to become once again the people which God had called and created them to be. Which is why, in our first reading, we hear him shout out with such excitement:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

For to the prophet and his people, justice had been delivered – justice had been delivered to an entire people. And such is the scale of God’s justice, that it is newsworthy not just for the Israelites, but it is to serve as a ‘signal’ to all ‘the peoples’, and be a cause of joy that will make the very mountains break into song.

And then, some 600 years later, we find the bar of God’s justice raised ever higher, as Jesus sets out his vision for a renewed, God-centered community of people in the text we call the Sermon on the Mount. For we are told – in words that can seem really quite unsettling – we are told that what humans cover up will be uncovered; that secrets will be made known; that words uttered in darkness will be made light; that what is whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

The words are startling, because there are many people here this morning, including both lawyers and clergy, who are expected to respect and keep a confidence. The act of sacramental confession, after all, would be nonsensical if a priest were to shout the sinful secrets imparted to him or her from the rooftops!

But Jesus shocks his hearers by reminding them that if our society, our communities, if all of God’s people lived a life fully inspired by and focused on the ways of God, we would not need secrets.

Not only would no court ever sit in camera again, but we would not need courts at all. And in the Christ-like world we sometimes call God’s Kingdom – that world for which we pray day by day in the most well-known prayer of all – when that world comes fully into being, there will no longer be an annual legal service. For if we all lived truly Christ-like lives, the North Eastern Circuit, with all His Majesty’s judges, magistrates and all the members of the legal profession would be joyously redundant.

But until that day dawns, as we mark the start of a new legal year, we must turn to God to pray for those gathered here in their various offices, and to thank God for their vocation and commitment – a vocation and commitment exercised as far as I can see in ever more hard-pressed and misunderstood circumstances which potentially undermine not just the professions represented here this morning, but which undermine the communities they are called to serve. For justice is not the preserve of those whose vocation it is to administer it – justice is at the very heart of the children of God.

And so each time we dare to use the words which Jesus gave us, each time we have the audacity to pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we must recognize that the justice which is The King’s Peace, and all that it takes to bring that to being and to maintain it – that justice is not merely the prerogative of our special guests gathered here this morning. It is a God-given calling that rests – and which has always rested – upon the shoulders of us all.

When poor Cecilia Hardy met her end, the community around her, let alone the Sherriff, let alone Edward III whose long reign was nearing its end when she died – the interwoven communities of York and of England knew that justice demanded the commitment and participation of everyone – and in the last 648 years, despite the professionalization of the legal system, that truth remains and endures.

So –  as we prayerfully cheer on those gathered here at the start of this new legal year, and if we truly believe that there must – always – be justice for Cecilia Hardy, her forebears and her successors, then we must all play our part in striving to bring unity to communities divided by the suspicion, envy and distrust that stem from secrets muttered in the dark; we must seek to bring the comfort and compassion of which the prophet spoke so movingly to all of God’s children.

For that, and nothing less, is what is needed if the heavens and the earth are truly ever to sing for joy. Amen.

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