800th Anniversary of Magna Carta: 2015

800th Anniversary of Magna Carta


There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about what it means to be British.  A letter to one newspaper said this: 'Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV.  And the most British thing of all?  Suspicion of anything foreign.'

Humour aside, the UK government in 2011 defined 'mainstream British values [as]: democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.'

And just last year the Prime Minister wrote an article for a Sunday newspaper where he described British values as 'a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.'

Now, most of us would agree with those values.  Indeed, we would probably say that they are not just British values, but universal values.  They may not always be put into practice, but they are still values that most people would aspire to.  Values of freedom and justice and equality.

But can we say where those values came from?  Are they something that someone just made up one morning, or is it something deeper?  I will come back to that in a moment.

But first: you might say that the first British document where all this was enshrined in law was the Magna Carta.  15th June this year was the 800th anniversary of the day in 1215 at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames when King John submitted to the power of his barons and signed the Great Charter that limited the power of the King and established some principles of justice that still apply today. 

Magna Carta promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice and limitations on payments to the Crown.  Paragraph 40, the most modern in some ways, reads, 'To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.' And judgement would be given by people's peers.

In the centuries since, the Magna Carta has developed a deeply symbolic role, with the American President, Barack Obama, describing it as the document which ‘first laid out the liberties of Man’.

Humourists have got in on the act too: Tony Hancock, for example, who quipped, ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?  That brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half-past ten.  Is all this to be forgotten?”

Or A.A. Milne, who wrote: ‘King John was not a good man, he had his little ways, and sometimes no-one spoke to him for days and days and days’. 

Even so, and despite the weight of history and mythology, and even humour resting upon it, the Magna Carta is hugely important.  Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls, said in 1965 “Magna Carta was the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the authority of the despot”.

Those words encapsulate Magna Carta’s fundamental principle: that the rule of law applies to everyone, even the King.

For this reason it has spoken powerfully to reformers throughout the ages: those who opposed King Charles I, the founding fathers of the United States, Nelson Mandela when on trial for his life in 1964 – all appealed to the principles contained in Magna Carta.

And even in our own day it has been invoked, when the government has occasionally sought to reduce our freedom in the name of the War Against Terror.

But I return to the question: can we say where those values came from?  Was it just the political situation at the time?  Or was it something deeper?  

Well, those of us who know our Bibles well, might recognise some of this from the book of Deuteronomy.  In Deuteronomy, for example, we read about judges and officials andthe king – and here we see just one of the Bible writers laying out just this vision of a balancing of power that promotes stability and fairness. 

In Deuteronomy chapter 16, we read: ‘You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes… You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue’. 

And here – from our Old Testament reading this morning – is Deuteronomy’s take on the power of the king: 'When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own people... The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself… He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.  He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold - and so it goes on. 

And then we’re told this: that the King is called to sit down and write out a copy of the Law of God – that is, the first five books of the Bible – then to read it, to meditate on it and to obey it all his life, quote, ‘neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment to the right or to the left’. 

The basic principles of the Magna Carta, in other words, are firmly earthed in the vision of the Book of Deuteronomy, and, indeed, in the teaching of Jesus, who came ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. 

And what this all means is this: that the document which, as the American President put it, ‘first laid out the liberties of man’, is not actually the first such document. 

The first such document is the Book of Deuteronomy.  The vision of human rights, of universal declarations, of a balance of power where no-one is above the Law isn’t an English idea, dreamt up by a bunch of barons and bishops; nor indeed is it a secular idea.  It’s firmly rooted in the teaching and values of the Bible.

And so to today: and in a world where religion as a whole is often seen as a problem, how important to be reminded that our very understanding of justice and fairness is rooted not in secular notions but in religious ones: in the text of the Bible itself.  

So what of Christians today?  What’s our calling in the light of this 800th anniversary?  It’s both to proclaim good news and to be good news.  We seek to proclaim good news, because we don’t believe that human beings can truly flourish without being spiritually rooted in the life of Christ; and we seek to be good news, because we are called unashamedly to transform the society around us – to be salt (which preserves what is good) and light (which reveals what is not). 

We are not the oppressed serfs of unpredictable medieval overlords needing a Magna Carta to secure our liberties but are drawn into the embrace of God who sent his Son so that the world might be saved through him. That is what we celebrate week by week in this place. 

However, we live in a world where too many people around the world cry out for something similar to Magna Carta to secure their liberties which are God-given but denied them by cruel secular powers, so our discipleship has to include bringing God’s justice to the world.

Our appropriate response as we gather together in church is to worship, but what will we do tomorrow to express through our lives the glorious liberty of the children of God into which all are invited in Jesus Christ?  The suffering, lonely people of the world, especially those we meet, depend upon our response if they, too, are to know that glorious liberty which flows from the life of God and cannot help but spill out into the world.