Each crisis, it seems, needs new laws. The preacher, one must presume, was wrong: everything under the sun is new. Every new form of criminal, sexual or terrorist activity needs new legislation from parliament, new laws to combat the new menace. Last year’s laws, still so new they have yet to be fully implemented by police and judges, are now inadequate and must be replaced, or at least supplemented by further powers and sanctions. Indeed, the turnover has increased so much that new clauses are often added to a bill to cover eventualities not envisaged when it first began its passage through the Commons. In a world of accelerating change, it is easy to suppose that one day new laws to cover new crimes will be required at a rate faster than they can be put onto the statute book. Strange world.
As lawyers, legislators and litigators have been one of the biggest threats to the values of western civilization (as opposed to the existence of western civilization, which is not the same thing), it would be easy to become cynical. The dilemmas have something to do with the precision of the legislative and legal process being taken to a point beyond which it can be effective. Might it not also lead to a widespread, unspoken fear that the law can no longer defend us? That in some sense there is no longer any law, only laws whose sell-by dates get shorter and shorter.
The Order for the Administration of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer requires the recitation of the Ten Commandments at every celebration. The 1928 concession substitutes Our Lord’s Summary of the Law, and I have often used it. Recently, however, we have been following the rubric to the letter: all ten in full every time. Yes, they are long, and (fairly obviously) boring, but as familiarity turns them almost into a background murmur to one’s own prayers, they carry, precisely because of that familiarity and repetition, a powerful reassurance that law exists. It has not gone away; it has not changed; it belongs to God; it must be followed.
That recitation served an important political function in the mid-sixteenth century, when the loss of law was a real and pervading fear. How strange that it may do so again in the twenty-first.