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An opportunity and a question for faith now

08 August 2014

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta offers churches a chance to reaffirm their place in public life, says Robin Griffith-Jones

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 content.

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 religious community.

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 English Church.

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" (Deuteronomy 16.18-19).

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 the law.

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 law.

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 Langton's power.

The Revd Dr Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple.

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 in 2015.

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