I started sitting as a Magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP) on the East Kent Bench in December 2010, whilst still a curate in Woodchurch. The Magistrate’s Court is the first tier of the English criminal justice system and deals with about 98% of all criminal cases. The vast majority of magistrates (like me) are part time volunteers, some are retired but many have other day jobs; I trained with teachers, journalists and others.
Before being ordained my first career was as a solicitor and, although I did not practise criminal law, I felt very ‘at home’ in the legal system. I wanted to be a magistrate as I felt that it would be an interesting way of serving the wider community (i.e. beyond the parish boundary) but that it would also enhance my parish ministry by exposing me to a whole part of society which may otherwise not appear even on a parish priest’s ‘radar’. I am really pleased to say that for the last two and a bit years my experience of being a magistrate has ticked both of those boxes and more.
However the range of reactions to a priest being a magistrate has been very interesting. When I was being selected the interview panel was split between those who were worried that I might be a wet, liberal, vicar who would want to let everyone off and those who thought I might be too ‘old testament’ and want to have everyone stoned to death!
The interesting reactions continued while I was going through the process of moving on from my curacy to being a vicar. The most extreme came from a very angry sounding lady (who was part of a panel of 16 interviewers) who asked how I could be a magistrate when the bible says that we should ‘not judge others lest we are judged ourselves‘ (Matt 7:1). My reaction was that this applies to all Christians (not just priests) and that if we took her point to its logical conclusion it would mean that no Christians could work within the criminal justice system and, in my view, that would be detrimental to the system. This is not to mention that the bible also contains plenty of ‘laws’ and even has a whole book called Judges! Maybe that makes me a little ‘old testament’ but it seems to me that God brought order out of chaos and that the proper rule of law, with a seasoning of Christian compassion, probably trumps a text taken out of context.
Although that was the most extreme reaction (and one that stays with me, as you can tell) the most common reaction was concern about a priest spending any time on an activity outside of the parish. One interview panel seemed very proud of the fact that their previous Rector had to give up all his outside interests because the parish kept him so busy. I said that this sounded very unhealthy both for the priest and the parish; I didn’t get that job! However, it was quite illuminating to see, time and again, both a generalised concern about the vicar having a role away from the parish and a more particular concern about whether a vicar should be a magistrate in the first place.
Fortunately the people of St Mary’s Hadlow were not overwhelmed by that concern and I continue to believe that being a priest helps make me an even-handed magistrate and that the experiences I gain from being a magistrate makes me a better parish priest.