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Magna Carta's anniversary a time to 'reaffirm commitment'

19 June 2015


Church and State: the Royal Barge Gloriana approaches Runnymede

Church and State: the Royal Barge Gloriana approaches Runnymede

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the Church has failed to live up to the "most noble qualities" set out in Magna Carta.

He made his comments on Monday, during a series of events to mark the 800th anniversary of the great charter at the site of its sealing in Runnymede, Surrey, in the presence of the Queen and other members of the royal family, as well as politicians and foreign dignitaries.

Archbishop Welby said that "in the centuries since [the Magna Carta was sealed], how often the Church and others have failed to uphold these most noble qualities, to be an advocate for those members of our community for whom the rights and liberties of Magna Carta have remained a distant hope.

"From the support for enclosures to the opposition to the Great Reform Act, to the toleration of all sorts of abuse, with humility we recognise these failings."

Earlier, the Duke of Cambridge joined a group of teenagers in a poetic dedication of a new permanent artwork by Hew Locke, The Jurors. It features 12 carved chairs, depicting historic and ongoing "struggles for freedom, rule of law, and equal rights".

In blazing heat, 3000 invited guests watched performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Band of the Royal Marines, and the Temple Church Choir, and listened to a series of speeches.

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, said that "the barons' list of demands would become a symbol of democracy, justice, human rights, and, perhaps above all, the rule of law for the whole world."

The Princess Royal said that "the values gleaned from Magna Carta provide us with one of our most basic doctrines: that no person is above the law. In recent history, and even today, we see in many parts of the world that power without that rule of law can lead to suffering of terrible proportions.

"The safeguards that were spawned by Magna Carta act as a bulwark against abuses of human rights. But it takes all of us to stand up for these principles."

The Prime Minister said that for centuries Magna Carta was invoked "to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering right around the world. But here in Britain - ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out - the good name of human rights has sometimes become distorted and devalued.

"So it falls to us to restore the reputation of those rights and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our job to safeguard the legacy of those barons. And there couldn't be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this one."

The US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, speaking as the American Bar Association's memorial at Runnymede was rededicated by Princess Anne, said: "This social contract between a monarch and his people codified, however imperfectly, notions that would one day stand at the heart of our own system of justice: the idea that no power is unconditional, and no rule is absolute; that we are not subjugated by an infallible authority but share authority with our fellow citizens; that all are protected by the law, just as all must answer to the law."


Church's vital part in Magna Carta

WITHOUT a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury, Magna Carta might never have existed, and the events of 1215 would have been dismissed as a "failed rebellion", a new report suggests.

Stephen Langton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1215, has been suggested as one of the early authors of the charter, whose first clause relates to the independence of the Church.

The report The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the forgotten roots of the Magna Carta, from the think tank Theos, says that Langton's robust leadership and dealings with the barons were crucial to the creation and signing of the charter, and that the ideas of lawfulness, accountability, access to justice, and the extension of rights to "all free men" are drawn from the world of medieval theology.

Scholars have also discovered that religious scribes wrote two of the four remaining copies of the parchments. Researchers working on the Magna Carta Project - a collaboration between the British Library; the University of East Anglia (UEA); King's College, London (KCL); All Souls College, Oxford; and Canterbury Christ Church University - believe that the Lincoln charter was written by a scribe working for the Bishop of Lincoln, and the Salisbury charter by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

The principal investigator on the project, Nicholas Vincent, who is Professor of Medieval History at UEA, said: "King John had no real intention that the charter be either publicised or enforced. It was the bishops, instead, who insisted that it be distributed to the country at large, and thereafter who preserved it in their cathedral archives.

"We now find at least two cathedral churches - Lincoln and Salisbury - each producing its own Magna Carta, supplying the time, the scribe, and the initiative to get the document copied.

"This serves as an important reminder of the ways in which our modern ideas of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law emerged from a close co-operation between Church and State.

"Bizarrely enough, Magna Carta is the product of a situation far closer to that which elsewhere in today's world we might associate with the enemies of modern liberal democracy, with sharia law, or with those systems in which Church and State are indistinguishable."

David Carpenter, who is Professor of Medieval History at KCL, and a member of the project team, said: "We now know that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals. This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties [which] would have been fatal, since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces."

Events to mark the Magna Carta anniversary were held around the country. At Manchester Cathedral, bell-ringers rang a quarter peal of Plain Bob Triples. Worcester Cathedral - which houses the bones of King John - also had a four-hour peal, and held concerts.

The Dean, the Very Revd Peter Atkinson, said: "We do not canonise King John, but we guard his tomb with the respect owed to that of a king, and we rejoice in the rule of law, to which kings are subject, and which Magna Carta symbolises."

About 700 pilgrims joined the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nick Holtam, on a pilgrimage from Old Sarum to Salisbury Cathedral, to celebrate the charter's sealing.


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