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The Church and Magna Carta

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Monday 15 June 2015

Christians have expressed concern that the religious influence in the development of Magna Carta – which celebrates its 800th anniversary today – has been sidelined or, worse yet, “airbrushed from history”.

As part of anniversary celebrations, UK Christian thinktank Theos have investigated the church’s influence on the document hailed by England’s most celebrated judge, Lord Denning, as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

A cursory reading of Magna Carta in the many English translations floating around the internet today might leave one asking: what’s all the fuss about? Thomas Andrew, author of the Theos report titled The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the forgotten roots of the Magna Carta, says the trivial points of law dealt with in Magna Carta – from tax and inheritance to forestry practice and the location of fish weirs – can be “difficult to reconcile with our perception of Magna Carta as a document that, as Barack Obama recently put it, ‘first laid out the liberties of man’”.

Rather, says Mr Andrew, Magna Carta was a “greenhouse in which certain ideas about the individual and the state were first allowed to germinate.”

Mr Andrew believes the church’s influence within that “greenhouse” has been largely overlooked in celebrations of Magna Carta’s influential longevity. It is a concern shared by the Church of England. Last year, its General Synod (church parliament) discussed the possibility that the role of religion in the establishment of the charter could be “airbrushed from history” by being overlooked in the commemorations .

“Without the support of the Church, and without the theological developments which provided the Magna Carta’s authors with their intellectual framework, it is doubtful whether 2015 would be remembered as the 800th anniversary of anything of particular note,” Mr Andrew writes.

Magna Carta was essentially a peace treaty drawn up between King John and his barons to avoid civil war in 1215. Damien Carrick from ABC’s The Law Report says, “In a nutshell, [Magna Carta] establishes the rule of law and restricts the free reign of the king to do as he pleases.”

Mr Andrew believes a failure to address the Church’s role in the lead up to Magna Carta is to miss a crucial part of its story.

“A failure to acknowledge the Christian theological context within which the Magna Carta arose is to miss out on an understanding of some of the most important roots of our political and intellectual heritage,” he argues.

The drafting of Magna Carta occurred against a backdrop of conflict over the influence of the English monarchy in issues of the Church. Take, for example, the relationship between King John and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.

In 1209, the lead up to Magna Carta, King John was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in response to the King’s “bullish behaviour” in refusing to accept the appointment of Langton as Archbishop, preferring instead a different man for the job.

The excommunication meant that England’s bishops and clergy were not permitted to carry out their normal duties – allowed only to perform rites of infant baptism and the absolution of the dying. King John demanded the clergy continue with their usual roles, despite the Papal interdict. Those who refused were stripped of their estates and privileges.

Communication between Rome and England was eventually repaired once King John realised he needed the Pope’s influence and power to succeed against the barons who were trying to topple him. Archbishop Langton was finally allowed into England and bestowed a great deal of influence.

Like some before him, Langton was keenly interested in defending the church against royal intrusion, an interest which did not go away upon being finally accepted by King John.

“As a scholar in Paris, Langton had used the book of Deuteronomy to expound his belief in the need for a written form of law that would set out the rightful activity of kings, and constrain their habitual excesses. Indeed, Langton’s charter of 1214, securing free elections for the Church, would have set a clear and recent precedent for a form of written law that held the king to his promises,” says Mr Andrew.

The first clause of Magna Carta is widely held to have been inserted by Langton himself – a testament to his enormous influence and his role as diplomat between the barons and King John as Magna Carta was being drafted. It reads, “First, that we have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired…”

Langton’s commitment to “ecclesial liberty” was, according to Mr Andrew, the driving force behind the Church’s commitment to Magna Carta as a worthy document.

“The inclusion of this clause gave the Church, and not least the bishops, a major stake in the Magna Carta’s survival,” Mr Andrew writes. Clergy played a vital role in distributing copies of the Charter to local parishes and were also, says Andrew, instrumental in securing Magna Carta’s numerous reissues during the reign of King Henry III.

“King John’s struggle with the English Church then, and the subsequent inclusion of the language of ecclesial liberty within the text of the Magna Carta, was to prove decisive, for the complex dynamic between the Church and the king gave ecclesial authorities a vested interest in any attempt to limit the monarch’s ability to interfere in Church affairs. Because of Langton’s innovation, the Church would go on to throw its considerable weight behind the Great Charter.

“Without that crucial contribution, there is a very real possibility that 2015 would mark the 800th anniversary of nothing more than a failed rebellion.”

You can read the full Theos Report, The Church and the Charter, here.

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