KING JOHN sealed Magna Carta (the Great Charter) in June 1215
"for the honour of God and the exaltation of Holy Church and the
reform of our realm". His advisers included two archbishops and
seven bishops. The Charter guaranteed the freedom of the English
Church, the principle of fair trial under the rule of law, and
enforceable restraints on the king's power.
Eight hundred years later, laws built on these principles secure
the rights of every individual to enjoy religious freedom, and
safeguard the institutional independence of all religious
organisations. The two billion people in the world who live in
common-law jurisdictions are the Charter's direct heirs; and every
modern constitution and human-rights document has adopted its
The Charter challenges today's faith communities to examine the
part they might play in the development of a liberal democracy. The
landscape has changed beyond recognition, from the universality of
the "English Church" in 1215 to the religious diversity and
multiculturalism of the 21st century; but "the honour of God and
reform of the realm" are still close to the heart of every
The part played by Archbishop Stephen Langton in the Charter's
gestation is still an inspiration. Langton had returned to England
in 1213. During his exile in Paris, he had been a famous lecturer
on the Old Testament. Within weeks of his return, Langton made John
swear to abolish evil laws, establish good laws, and judge all his
subjects by the just sentences of his courts.
Then Langton found the Coronation Charter of rights granted by
the revered King Henry I, and swore to help the barons secure such
a charter from John. Langton remained loyal to the beleaguered
king, but urged him to meet the barons' demands for a charter of
rights and liberties.
LANGTON was also relentless - ruthless, some say - in the
promotion of the Church's interests, most conspicuously in the
Charter's opening clause, which guaranteed the freedom of the
This undertaking, the Charter makes clear, was made to God,
without duress and in perpetuity. It was, then, immune to any of
the attacks that, as Langton surely knew, would soon be launched
against the Charter.
Langton's biblical principles inform the Charter's most famous
clauses. According to Deuteronomy, the people of Israel were not to
be enslaved by their rulers; they were not to be abused; they were
to be treated as those whom God had set at liberty from Egypt.
Fundamental to such a polity was the administration of justice.
"You shall make for yourself judges and officers . . . and they
shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not wrest
judgment; you shall not respect persons, neither take a gift"
Such, in turn, was the basis of the biblical kingship that Magna
Carta sought to realise: "No free man will be taken or imprisoned
or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall
we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgment of his peers
and by the law of the land. To no one shall we sell, to no one
shall we deny or delay right or justice" (Clauses 39 and 40).
THE Revd Dr Nicholas Sagovsky has pointed out that Magna Carta
as a whole could be seen as a new Deuteronomy. And, when the
Charter was reissued in 1216 as the Coronation Charter of the
boy-king Henry III, it was effectively a promise that the king
would rule as a new Josiah (2 Kings 22-23), obedient to the book of
Dr Sagovsky draws out an analogy with the covenantal
constitution envisaged by Langton, and the consequent evolution of
the Common Law: "Just as with the covenants of the Hebrew
scriptures, which defined Israel as a covenant-people, so Magna
Carta became woven into the self-understanding of the English
nation. Just as the prophets of Israel recalled the people to fresh
observance of the covenant, so the constitutional thinkers and
lawyers of the common-law tradition have refreshed and renewed our
understanding of Magna Carta over 800 years."
It was fitting that the General Synod in York last month carried
a motion to recognise the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta "as an
important opportunity to celebrate the Charter's principles - which
established that the English Church and all our citizens shall live
in freedom and which have contributed to human flourishing in this
country and around the world" (General Synod, 18 July).
AMID the celebrations, we should acknowledge as well the
delicate position in which today's faith communities find
themselves. We are expected to follow Langton's heroic example in
the promotion of civil harmony, cohesion, and good will. But the
law does not acknowledge any text or doctrine of any religion to be
the basis of national life. The enduring principles of Magna Carta
will be widely celebrated next year without reference to divine
Historians may point to the influence of Judaeo-Christian
teaching (asserting equality and dignity before God) on modern
human-rights principles (asserting equality and dignity before the
law); but that ancestry seems to carry little weight.
The equality of all religions under the state's secular law may
well be the best guarantee, in a secular society, of equal freedom
for each religion and its adherents. But it is not always easy for
faith communities to promote such relentless secularism
ungrudgingly as a fundamental and indispensable social good.
Magna Carta's anniversary will be an extraordinary opportunity
for churches to reaffirm their historic and current place in public
life; it will be a call, as well, to acknowledge the difficulties
intrinsic to that place in a world that knows nothing of Langton's
biblical, covenantal polity, and that lends to the churches none of
The Revd Dr Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the
A conference about Magna Carta was mounted in Inner and
Middle Temple, London, in June, and a book based on it, Magna
Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law, will be published by CUP