Magna Carta Sermon
Sunday 30 July, 2023
A sermon preached by The Revd Maggie Guillebaud
May I speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
This morning I am privileged to be the first member of the clergy to go off piste, as it were, in our customary Summer Sermon Series. This is when the clergy at the cathedral preach on various themes instead of the lessons from the Bible laid down for us in the Lectionary. This summer we shall be preaching on the works of art we see in our current exhibition, To Be Free: Art and Liberty.
At the heart of this exhibition lies the magnificent piece by Cornelia Parker, visible just behind my right shoulder, but not, alas, to those of you watching on-line. It is a stunning 13-metre-long embroidery of the Magna Carta as depicted on its Wikipedia page, including the footnotes which appear at the end of every Wikipedia entry.
Its making was an exercise in democracy, with prisoners from 13 different prisons in England contributing to its embroidery , as did MPs, civil rights campaigners, lawyers, artists, and indeed barons.
The beautiful images which appear on the pages on-line were embroidered by expert embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework and the organisation Hand and Lock. It was truly a combined effort. And the stitching is immaculate.
Why was this document chosen for the exhibition, this Great Charter, among so many others, apart from the fact that the cathedral owns a copy?
Afterall, Henry 1’s Charter of Liberties of 1100 promised many similar things some 95 years before. Why not choose that?
In essence this document was only a peace treaty between King John, of legendary infamy, and his rebellious barons. I suspect John never imagined this one treaty among so many others would have any effect other than getting the barons off his back. Pope Innocent III annulled it just 4 months after it was signed, claiming the Charter to be ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.’ He declared it ‘null and void of all validity for ever.’ John himself repudiated it 3 months after its signing. That should have been that.
But as we all know, it wasn’t.
So why was this charter so different? And why does it remain so important to us even today?
The most important thing the Charter sought to do was to get the King, the ultimate source of power, under some kind of control. By insisting that someone could not be imprisoned or punished without having a fair trial by jury was the first marker laid down against the arbitrary abuse of power by the king.
The other clauses, as they were known, that we remember best were those relating to swift access to justice, the protection of the rights of the Church, and limitations of taxes and other feudal dues due to the King. But we must remember that many of these demands were to apply largely to the barons: we were a long way from the ‘persons’, as referred to in the document, meaning you and me.
25 barons were appointed to make sure that the promises made in the Charter were carried out by the King, enshrined in the famous clause 61. Other clauses concerned everything from Welsh princes to fisheries. But with its swift repudiation, none of these clauses were put to the test.
But a seed had been planted, and it became an iconic document, often referred to by states in the process of formation all over the world, from the American Constitution in 1789 to its becoming a basis for the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Wherever Human Rights are discussed, this is the corner-stone document to which many refer. It has every right to have pride of place in an exhibition which speaks of freedom and liberty.
But how easily constitutions are set up, and the basic tenets of what they proclaim flouted by paranoid and power-hungry leaders. Countries are fleeced as despots and their cronies help themselves to their countries’ coffers. Constitutions are often no more than a fig-leaf to cover greed, apathy, and social control. Just because you have a constitution does not mean that you have a just society or incorrupt leaders.
So why do we persist in trying to write them, amend them, live by them? Because women and men of good will know that for a society to thrive even the most powerful in the land must not be above the law. That laws must be just, equitable, and enforceable. All ideas which were enunciated in the modest piece of vellum which we can inspect in the Chapter House of the cathedral.
And its presence in this cathedral is apt. William Longspee, a defender of the King whose tomb lies beneath me on my left, was at the famous sealing of the document at Runnymede. And the document was mediated by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. But more importantly the charter was, if we think about it, inspired by the fundamental Christian belief that as we are all created equal by God, therefore we are all equal, be we kings or commoners. It was but a short step philosophically to arrive at a position where all are therefore equal before the law. Not that Medieval England would understand it in that way, as we have seen. But it was a start.
Jesus always had an especial heart for the poor and dispossessed. He sought out the marginalized, the unloved, the frowned-upon – who loves tax collectors?- and those who had no voice, such as women and children. His Mother, Mary, poured out in ecstatic song her belief that God would raise up the poor and ‘put down the mighty from their seat.’ We are told that the first shall be last, and the last first. Equality reigns in his kingdom. He did not ask his followers to be a cosy people, but a people dedicated to strive for what is right so that all humankind can flourish. And he placed the love of God for all individuals far above following to the last the minute prescriptions of the Jewish law. He valued and loved everyone equally, giving even he humblest in society dignity and worth. And we know that before the throne of God we will all be judged equally, regardless of the pecking order of society.
Magna Carta was one of the first stirrings of an idea which over the centuries would lead us to the latest iteration of what we now call Human Rights, and it sprang directly from Christian teachings.
On that damp patch of ground at Runnymede, between Staines and Windsor, on the banks of the River Thames in 1215 a document was sealed whose reach no one present at the time would have believed, a document which, translated into linen and thread in this exhibition, makes an indelible mark on all who view it.
It also reminds us that freedom cannot be taken for granted, as the abandonment of the Charter, so soon after it was signed, shows us.
So, it stands too as a warning from history.
The Thames flows through Runnymede on down past the Houses of Parliament, the protector of our freedoms, to the sea. So let Kipling in his poem The Reeds of Runnymede have a last word :
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the mood of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede.
Our freedoms can never be taken for granted: they must be secured anew by every generation, fought for, challenged, re-defined in the Mother of Parliaments and in our Courts. All over the world humanity cries out for just societies. These are cries to be heeded by those of us lucky enough to live under fair laws. Because there is no room for complacency for those of us who aspire to follow Jesus’ teachings and example on the long road to freedom, liberty, and dignity for all.