The Great Charter and Global Religion

To mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Mark Hill QC, the co-editor of Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law, discusses what Magna Carta means for religions worldwide today.

King John sealed the Magna Carta of 1215 ‘from reverence for God and for the salvation of our soul and those of all our ancestors and heirs, for the honour of God and the exaltation of Holy Church and the reform of our realm’. Archbishop Stephen Langton was resolute in the promotion of the Church’s interests, most conspicuously in clause 1 itself:

‘In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate’.

It was designed to be irrevocable and this clause has never been repealed. Life in the thirteenth century was fundamentally informed by Christian convictions, hopes and fears. Principles of polity, justice and due process had for centuries been drawn from scripture and reiterated by churchmen. Langton’s was one voice within an anti-monarchical tradition emergent in the theology and politics of Christian Europe. The enduring principles of Magna Carta – due process, fair trial and effective restraint upon the executive – are invoked without reference to divine law, although Judaeo-Christian teaching (equality and dignity before God) clearly influenced modern human rights principles (equality and dignity before the law). Ours is a mobile and deracinated generation: the custodians of ancient traditions and principles that have for centuries undergirded our polity do not now earn respect or attention through that wardship alone.

There is a dichotomy from which we cannot escape: the Great Charter is both a convoluted, practical document of a distant, specifically Christian, past and an icon of the benefits inherited from that past by all citizens in the multinational, multicultural, inter-religious and often secular common law world today. In the modern ‘Post-Christian’ age, Magna Carta challenges today’s faith communities to examine the valuable part which they are still called to play in the fulfillment of a liberal democracy and the active participation to which religions are still called in civil society.

However, the elusive concept of freedom of religion bears different meanings across both time and continents. What Magna Carta says – and, as importantly, does not say – about it is relevant not merely to the English Church (howsoever defined) but to all faith communities world-wide. Magna Carta intrigues those of differing religio-legal traditions. It is a text tainted in some ways with anti-Semitism but the common law world ultimately owes to Magna Carta the constitutional equality before and under the law which now protects diasporic Judaism and Islam.

The Charter’s articulation of the citizen’s relationship with the state in a thirteenth century context finds sharp resonances within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights. The meaning to be ascribed to the freedom of the English Church may have changed beyond recognition in eight centuries, the concepts which informed and framed Magna Carta – exported to New World then re-imported as a constitutional imperative – are perhaps more urgent and vital now than they have ever been. Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, describes Magna Carta as ‘the source of the constitutional liberties of all English‐speaking peoples, and a common bond of peace between them’. Faith leaders should promote such equality under and before the law, not concessively or opportunistically, but as a fundamental and indispensable social good that trumps any inherited standing or privilege.

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Quick facts

It is the most famous document in history - Magna Carta - and it was sealed 800 years ago today. This humble piece of parchment is celebrated for creating the very concept of human rights, the idea that
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