Magna Carta: "A Line in the Sand"

The Revd Margaret Legg

Magna Carta was revolutionary. It was iconic. It stated, for the first time, that no-one was above the law, not even the king, God’s representative on earth. The Crown was under the Law.

Magna Carta did not apply to Scotland. Perhaps this is why difficulties cropped up when the crown was inherited by the Scottish King James and his son Charles 1, who promoted the concept of the divine right of kings. He was beheaded.

I did not (around 1992) describe myself as a defender of faith – misquote!

I would rather be seen as ‘defender faith’ because I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. At the same time as being defender of the faith you can also be protector of faith. This has been frequently mis-interpreted.

The Queen in her Jubilee Address to the faith leaders seemed to confirm this when she said the role of the C of E is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead the church has a duty to protect the free practise of all faiths in this country.

Prince of Wales talking to Diane Louise Jordan broadcast R4 8.2.15

It was a loss of authority. King John, of course, only sealed it because he was forced to: the barons had seized London and he had had to dismiss his chief minister. He never intended to honour it and immediately got Pope Innocent III’s agreement to annul it. Not surprising, as the Pope was, in 1215, setting up the Inquisition, which, far from limiting the authorities’ power over the individual, made it absolute. Interestingly, Magna Carta never crossed over into Europe, and only England escaped the Inquisition. But John died the next year. The Charter was immediately re-issued and the Papal Legate set his seal to it. The Charter on the statute book today is the one issued in 1225.

There were limits to the reach of the great charter, as light heartedly pointed out in our first reading!

Most people were not free – they were villeins, or unfree peasants and most of the clauses did not apply to them. But they were freed a little: the fines which could be imposed on them were limited so as not to deprive them of their livelihood.

It upheld liberties, rather than laying down rights. It was not a code of law on the Napoleonic model, intent on interfering with every detail of daily life.  Rather it established core principles and ideals, which fed into the English Common Law tradition. So we have law by precedent in this country, interpreted by judges. Clause 39, giving all ‘freemen’ the right to justice and clause 40 – to no- one shall we sell, refuse or delay justice, helps explain why it subsequently inspired constitutional documents such as America’s Bill of Rights in 1791 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

There’s never been a communist or fascist period of any significance in England and perhaps in the English speaking world, and it’s because we got the political structures right. And it began with Magna Carta.

The freedom of the church was paramount: the first and last clauses both state this. The Biblical model of kingship was evoked - Langton Archbishop prominent in all the negotiations. Local government, via the shires, was handed over to knights, not appointed by the king, who were even empowered to investigate all the abuses of the king’s officials. This mirrors the appointment of judges for each of the 12 tribes in Hebrew Scriptures. Like the people of Israel, set at liberty from Egypt, the people of England were not to be enslaved or abused by their ruler. But freedom of church brings responsibilities, as Christians and as the church we are all responsible for working for peace and justice, to confront exploitation, to care for those in need and to challenge all infringements on everyone’s liberty, under the law

But can these freedoms go so far they actually undermine our freedom? The Ministry of Defence is paying millions in compensation to numerous jihadis who are suing, using UK taxpayers’ money, the British Army, for alleged breaches of their human rights. Are we too complacent or unaware of what’s going on? We are watched without realising it: eg loyalty cards monitor our shopping habits and send us tempting offers. Subliminally affects us to some degree. Our movements are tracked through our phones; our communications are read, intercepted, stored.

Post 9.11 the US Supreme Court ruled many times that detention without trial (in the context of the Guantanamo Bay suspects) was unconstitutional, repeatedly citing MC. A lesser court over-ruled this, because in times of war these rules do not apply!! Has security become more important than freedom? Are we sleepwalking towards authoritarianism? Should police officers be allowed to obtain the telephone records of investigative journalists using terror laws (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) or is that an infringement of their liberty?

Brussels aims to create a unified European Criminal Code. It would abolish, apparently, trial by jury, habeus corpus (bodies unlawfully detained for trail), and other safeguards considered normal by the British, yet ignored by the European Convention. Some see the European Arrest warrant as an infringement of Magna Carta because a European prosecutor will issue European warrants. Others worry that UK will become a safe haven for foreign criminals and fugitives if it opts out.

Over the coming weeks we will focus on the struggles and hardships endured byvarious sections of society in their journeys to secure freedoms. It’s not easy to stand up for what we believe in. To confront exploitation, to support those working for freedom and to challenge infringements on everyone’s liberty under the law. But if we don’t, we could find ourselves living in a society like that of 1984, with even our thoughts under surveillance and every movement even in our own homes, monitored and judged. As Christian we have no choice but to do this because we serve a God whose kingdom is based on equality, justice and freedom for all and in whose service, as Augustine put it, we find perfect freedom.

We enjoy the rights of freedom and justice instigated in Magna Carta; we perhaps need to take up more strongly our responsibilities to assert, maintain and defend them. As Christians intent on strengthening God’s kingdom here on earth, and as the church we are all responsible for working tror peace ,andjustice,

There were limits to the reach of the great charter, as light heartedly pointed out in our first reading!

Most people were not free – they were villeins, or unfree peasants and most of the clauses did not apply to them. But they were freed a little: the fines which could be imposed on them were limited so as not to deprive them of their livelihood.