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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Charter of our Liberties: a Sermon for the Courts of Justice

I don’t need to remind you of all people about the significance of 2015 for English-speaking people. Last month I sat in the sunny meadow at Runnymede with Her Majesty, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister and thousands of others from many parts of the world to celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.

We in this Cathedral have an interest in this centenary. We own the only known exemplar from 1216, together with two others, the definitive 1225 issue, and that of 1300. We also have the three Charters of the Forest to go with them. The 1300 set is currently on tour in Canada, the only Commonwealth country to be receiving one from anywhere in England this year. Our 1216 exemplar is on display in Palace Green Library as the centrepiece of an exhibition to mark this year. When our new exhibitions open, you will be able to see all six precious documents on show for the first time. It will be unmissable. Some of you were here or at Middlesbrough Cathedral to enjoy the performance of our specially commissioned Magna Carta community opera.

You may think that the moment for preaching about Magna Carta has passed. You would be wrong. As one American speaker at Runnymede said, 1215 was only the beginning of a long journey. Our Durham copies tell the vital story of how it gradually became embedded in the law and life of our people. Bad King John’s 1215 original had been annulled by Pope Innocent III, a misjudgement that fuelled a disastrous civil war of the Barons. John’s young son Henry III reissued it in 1216. At first its hold was precarious, but it began to be established during Henry’s reign. The next issue of 1225 broke new ground because unlike his father who had sealed under duress, Henry attached the royal seal under his own ‘spontaneous and free will’, and this gave it both authority and acceptance in the land.

The legal profession doesn’t need persuading to endorse Lord Denning’s judgment that Magna Carta is ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.  We come to this service each year to celebrate our equality under the law, the gift to our society that justice cannot be bought or sold, that we are subject to lawful judgment by our peers, that we are free within a constitutional framework from the whims of the tyrant, that we value due process as safeguarding transparency and fairness. All this owes an incalculable debt to the Great Charter. Then there are later developments in our common life and institutions that we rightly prize today such as the universal democratic franchise, equality and human rights. No-one claims that the legal shape of a modern body politic can be deduced from a thirteenth century text, but their seeds were sown then.

But let me ask a question. We are sitting in this Cathedral where, like other cathedrals, copies of the Great Charter were deposited.  Why in cathedrals? It’s true that in the middle ages cathedrals and monasteries (and Durham was both) were centres of learning where legal documents were guarded because apart from monks and clerks, few could read, let alone write. In the Durham Palatinate that protected the border marches, the King’s writ did not run. So it was especially important that the Counts Palatine, as we should call the Prince Bishops, themselves stood by the provisions of the Charter as those accountable to the Sovereign, and did not run away with the idea that they possessed absolute powers. What is more, unlike the sheriffs of those days, the church was trusted to honour the Charter and play its part in making sure that it informed the common life of the nation.

But there is another aspect of this, and it is all but forgotten. This is the role of Christianity in creating Magna Carta in the first place and seeing that it was properly implemented. At Runnymede last month, only the Archbishop of Canterbury had anything to say about this when he spoke about the role of his predecessor Stephen Langton as a crucial player in this thirteenth century drama. In all the speech-making and ceremonial surrounding this great anniversary, very few seem to have understood this all-important religious context of Magna Carta or even mentioned it. Let me explain.

Langton, a fine Christian and one of the greatest scholars of his era, was deeply influenced both by classical jurisprudence and by the medieval canon law of the church. The freedom of the church from interference by oppressive kings had become the most contentious political issue of that time. This is why Magna Carta begins and ends on this note. It sounds odd to our own secular age but it spoke directly into a crucial dilemma of the century and is, incidentally, one of the three remaining unrepealed clauses in the Charter. You could put it like this: a right relationship between the Sovereign and the Church was a prerequisite for a right relationship between the Sovereign and his people. So the next question must be: if the king’s powers are not absolute, what then are the liberties the just ruler enjoys, and what limitations are to be imposed on him?

Langton went back to the Book of Deuteronomy where, twenty centuries before the Charter, the author was already insisting that even a king was bound to Israel’s covenant with God and had a duty like every other Israelite to be subject to the divine law (a provision that undoubtedly reflects Israel’s bitter memory of vicious, abusing kings). This was the passage we heard read as the first lesson. It is already to hint at a move away from a hierarchical view of authority to one in which king and people enter into a contract. This lies at the heart of a constitutional monarchy. On 9 September the Queen becomes the longest-reigning monarch in English history. I wondered at Runnymede if she was thinking about how Magna Carta requires royal authority to be legitimated, and by implication, every other power and authority, a strikingly modern insight for its age.

This may have seemed a radical, and dangerous, new idea in an age that deferred to those with divinely given authority, but it was already embedded in the scriptures. The New Testament follows the Old in acknowledging that all human authority is subject to God’s kingship. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ says Jesus to Pontius Pilate in St John’s Gospel. It is wholly different from the empire you are subservient to. No human power is absolute or lasts for ever. One of the psalms memorably puts oppressive leaders in their place: ‘I said you are gods; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals’, a verse Jesus quotes in St John. As a preacher, my job is to remind us all of the limits placed on the powers we possess. Those boundaries are set so that we accurately identify where ultimate authority belongs – with the Almighty who is the King to whom we are ultimately accountable.

It is the same whether you are in politics or the law, education, commerce or health. It is the same in the church. It is right that it should be. You could see this Legal Service as its annual celebration not only among those charged publicly to maintain The Queen’s Peace but among all of us to whom the ideals of good citizenship matter. By honouring Magna Carta and its profound influence on our nation’s life in the centuries since, we acknowledge not only its political, legal and societal content but also its essentially theological and religious character. Good governance and divine rule are of a piece. The Charter’s recognition of the spheres of divine and human authority, how the City of God and the city of mortals are woven into a single piece in our human life is what makes it truly life-changing and makes it a powerful symbol of our quest to seek the common good in our society.

Magna Carta ends with the aspiration that all shall keep ‘these liberties, rights and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs in all things and all places for ever’. Well and peaceably. That is to draw our gaze beyond a medieval parchment to the faith of those who created it, and beyond those great lawyers and theologians, to the One who spoke about God’s promised reign of justice, goodness and peace and taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come!’. The best we are capable of in this fallen world already points forward to that reality. Thank you for your part in this work that is both God’s and ours.

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