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‘honouring history: encouraging evolution’ reflections on almost half a year of being High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire

28 August 2023

As autumn beckons, so does the midpoint of my year as High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. I can scarcely believe the months since my Declaration of Office on 31 March 2023 have flown by so quickly and that I have been able to pack so much in. 

It’s a genuine honour to be asked to undertake this role although, as previous High Sheriffs have consistently discovered, not many people the High Sheriff meets in the year in office have a clue about what a High Sheriff is, does, or is resourced. 

For this reason alone, there is probably a case to be made for this ancient ‘ceremonial’ office, in the gift of the Crown, to be abolished or at least to be allowed to wither quietly on the vine of evolution. Following the death of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 21st century Britain entered a modern Carolean era that the inevitability of human mortality ensures will be succeeded in the mid and late century by a younger sovereign destined to rule in a rapidly changing world in which the cries to modernise the monarchy are likely to be more vociferously and widely heard.  Maybe this is an appropriate juncture therefore to contemplate a parallel review of the ‘shrievalty’, which many would deem to be the peripheral and pompous paraphernalia of an outdated form of public service. 

Although by temperament an innovator, I find myself curiously at odds with such arguments. I have arrived at this conclusion on the evidence of my experiences as current High Sheriff. I chose as my overarching theme for my year ‘honouring history: encouraging evolution’ because I wanted to explore the origins of the shrievalty and to test, considering my experience, if history teaches us that the office remains relevant today.  I believe it does provided that the office holder takes the opportunity of the ‘platform’ provided by the office to examine ways in which evolution can be appropriately encouraged. 

This is what I am trying to do in my year, building on what some of my predecessors started Buckinghamshire, So for example, my Declaration of Office on 31 March 2023 was open to the wider community across the city of Milton Keynes and the county of Buckinghamshire, and together with the outgoing High Sheriff and the Lord-Lieutenant, we used the occasion to explain the role of the High Sheriff to over 200 people gathered at the Open University in Milton Keynes. The outgoing High Sheriff spoke about the highlights of her year and was thanked by the Lord-Lieutenant. I spoke about my priorities for my year - sustainability and the elimination of violence against women and girls. The event was filmed and highlights can be viewed on the website www.highsheriffofbuckinghamshire.com

For many people this was their first glimpse of what a High Sheriff is, does, and is resourced.

This brings me to another facet of the role which I believe requires examination and evolution - the matter of financing the office of High Sheriff. The expectation that the High Sheriff covers the entire costs of the year is plainly at odds with a society that now rightly regards inclusivity as highly as diversity and equality. Such a practice self-evidently excludes citizens who do not have the economic means to fulfil the role. I accept that I cannot change this during my year. However, I am trying to put my mantra ‘zero cost’ into practice by obtaining ‘sponsorship in kind’ in return for giving organisations and businesses the opportunity to share the High Sheriff’s event where interests are aligned. So, for example, the OU provided me with the venue and light refreshments for my Declaration and used the venue to display the University’s work on my two priorities of sustainability and the elimination of violence against women and girls. 

In the same way, the focus for the third quarter of my year will be a county wide conference on the elimination of violence against women and girls which will be made possible with support from Milton Keynes Business Leaders and Howes Percival Solicitors. It remains for me to cover several associated costs, with which I personally have no problem, but I am concerned to find a way going forward in which increasingly costs incurred undertaking the duties of High Sheriff can be covered so that many suitable candidates for office will not be discounted by financial disadvantage.

I am the 789th High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and the first Quaker to hold the office. In recognition of this, other ways in which I am ‘encouraging evolution’ are shown in my choice of court dress, the nature of my chaplaincy, and the way I am marking the start of the legal year later this month. 

Perusal of the High Sheriff’s website and social media  https://www.instagram.com/hisheriffbucks/ https://twitter.com/HiSheriffBucks will illustrate my point about court dress, and you will have to watch this space for a fuller account of how the Quaker Meeting for Worship takes place on Friday 29th September. It will be held in Jordans Quaker Meeting House in South Buckinghamshire https://www.jordansquakercentre.org marking another first as there is no record of a High Sheriff ‘justice service’ ever having taken place in a Quaker Meeting House. Jordans also happens to be an iconic Quaker landmark, conveniently for me, situated in Buckinghamshire.  Simon Jenkins, in England’s Thousand Best Churches, describes Jordans Meeting House as ‘the Quaker Westminster Abbey’. Built in three months in the autumn of 1688, Jordans is one of the first Quaker meeting houses built after James II issued his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which allowed Quaker and other non-conformist groups to worship lawfully for the first time. The Meeting House has several important historical associations notably being the burial place of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.