Happy 800th Anniversary, Magna Carta!

Church Played Crucial Role


LONDON — June 19 will mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta — the great charter of rights and freedoms drawn up by the abbots of England’s monasteries and the feudal barons of the English counties and presented to King John to sign.

Queen Elizabeth II will visit Runnymede (shown in photo) on the Thames, where the signing took place, and various ceremonies and commemorative events are planned around the country for the occasion.

But what most people perhaps do not recognize is the central role played by the Church in all of this.

Britain today is an increasingly secularized society, with Christianity regarded as an optional and old-fashioned viewpoint adopted by some people but not part of mainstream everyday life. Church attendance is low: Out of a population of some 57 million people, fewer than 2 million attend a Catholic or an Anglican church each week, according to the “Pastoral Research Centre Trust” from the Roman Catholic Church of England and “Statistics for Mission 2013” from the Church of England.

Materials offered to schools by the British Library to mark the Magna Carta anniversary focus on “Did the Magna Carta apply to women?” and whether or not people held under suspicion of terrorist activity are having their rights infringed. The library’s Magna Carta website offers material on “Magna Carta and Radicalism” and “Perceptions of King John in the 17th Century” (the Magna Carta was signed in the 13th) and “Magna Carta and My Digital Rights.”

There is no information on the Church’s role or on Christianity in Britain. The whole emphasis is on a secular approach, as if Christianity had no significant role to play.


Christian Elements

But what does the Magna Carta actually say?

It opens with a statement from King John, “before God,” stating that the charter has been drawn up “to the honor of God and the exaltation of the holy Church and the better ordering of our kingdom.”

It then lists all of the bishops and abbots who were responsible for drawing up the charter, beginning with the primate of England; Stephen, the archbishop of Canterbury; and including a member of the papal household, various bishops and various earls and barons. And then comes the first of the rights established by the charter: “That the English Church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”

Today, Britain is suffering from a sort of cultural amnesia — as though Christianity had not shaped and formed our country’s culture for nearly 2,000 years, as though our saints and heroes, our language, folklore, names of streets, towns and cities, our nursery rhymes and pub signs, our jokes and sayings, our ideas and values all happened in a great void.

And this amnesia is somehow rather forced — because, actually, Christianity does still shape much of the way people act and believe. The forgetfulness can be lifted by events that shift the fog, however temporarily: the state visit of Benedict XVI, the 2014 blood-red poppies at the Tower of London, Christmas, royal weddings and jubilees. Church schools are massively over-subscribed. Successive popes in recent years have drawn high popularity polls.

The Christian Institute, an evangelical campaigning group, in a leaflet produced to mark the general election, asked, “How many people today realize that the first clause of the Magna Carta sought to protect the legal freedom of the English Church?” noting that, today, “religious liberty is being increasingly challenged” with laws on “equality” fining businesses that believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and Christians losing their jobs for answering questions about their faith.

Christians are being marginalized, notably in the Department of Education’s campaign to promote “British values” in schools and through the Ofsted inspection system, in which pupils at Christian and Jewish schools were subjected to intrusive questioning about their knowledge of homosexuality and related issues.

Catholic journalist Charles Moore has noted that those who hold the “socially conservative moral view are now teetering on the edge of criminality and are over the edge of disapproval by those who run modern Britain.”

The only place that is given to Christianity in the celebrations for the Magna Carta is with reference to history. The various copies of the Magna Carta that exist in Britain are preserved and displayed in our country’s great medieval cathedrals, and special commemorations will be taking place at Salisbury, Lincoln and Hereford cathedrals, with displays, lectures, thanksgiving services and events for children, etc. Bells will be tolled at churches across Britain to mark the anniversary. There will be various events at Bury St. Edmunds, where the abbots of England first met to draw up the charter. But at the official level, the message is a purely secular one.

Catholic peer Lord David Alton told me that the anniversary is a good time to take a deep look at the values that really matter:

“Eight hundred years ago, the Magna Carta set out the foundational principles on which our jurisprudence is based. In affirming the rule of law, its authors, who included the country’s leading Churchmen, sought to temper the excesses of their rulers. 

“Eight hundred years later, today’s rulers, from North Korea to Iran, are responsible for egregious violations of human rights, including widespread persecution of Christians. 

“In its opening lines, the Magna Carta insisted on the freedoms of the Church. As we see these same freedoms systematically eroded and under attack in many Western democracies, and as believers are murdered, abducted and maltreated in many other jurisdictions, we need to recognize that every generation must renew its commitment to the Magna Carta’s principles. That should be the message on this 800th anniversary.”

Joanna Bogle is a London-based

journalist and EWTN host.