[Skip to Content]

12 June 2015

Magna Carta: the battle today about yesterday for tomorrow

Magna Carta: the battle today about yesterday for tomorrow

It may have escaped your attention, but Monday, 15 June, is the date we will be celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Recently, there have been a rash of TV documentaries on the subject, special reports in the newspapers and on the radio, and a focus in schools. Needless to say, politicians have also been waxing lyrical about the significance of this document for shaping the development of human rights, equality and democracy. Once described by 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”, Barack Obama has recently declared that it, “first laid out the liberties of man.”

On Monday, I’ll be attending an event in parliament where a panel will be discussing the impact of Magna Carta today. The event is supported by  Christians in Parliament, The Lawyers' Christian Fellowship and by Theos, a public theology think-tank who have also produced Church and the Charter by Thomas Andrew . Yes, all Christian – and yes, all celebrating Magna Carta.

Be honest: how aware are you about the Christian roots of this historic document? Who do you think wrote it? Who do you think convened the meeting when it was signed? And whose demands are stated at the beginning and at the conclusion of it? Maybe it was the barons or nobles? No. It was the Church that wrote it. More specifically, it’s highly likely that it was the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton. Once exiled by King John – the truly awful king who was forced to sign Magna Carta – Langton was a theological genius with a particular interest in what the book of Deuteronomy had to say about equality before the law, even for kings. This was pretty radical thinking for the time, but imagine how it sounded to Moses and the Israelites. To the bishops gathered at Runnymede in 1215, the signing of Magna Carta represented nothing less than the culmination of a centuries-long war between the pagan and the Christian concepts of law and power.

Today, as we debate British values – something the Alliance will be covering in the next edition of idea magazine – and consider a British Bill of Rights, and the possibility at some point of a written constitution, we seem to have succumb to a form of cultural amnesia about who we are and what has shaped us. At best this can be seen as apathy or ignorance. At worst, an embarrassment about God in public life can drive a conscious attempt to deny the historic role of Christianity in shaping the world we live in. An exhibition in the British Library, which pays scant attention to the pivotal role of the Church, is a good example of this.  

The deafening silence on the Christian roots of Magna Carta amongst our secular, liberal elites represents nothing less than historical deconstruction, an attempt to re-write history to suit their own worldviews and therein shape the future. This battle that is raging today – about yesterday – for tomorrow, reflects an age old struggle for truth that cannot be ignored by Christians. This is because, as the Bible teaches us time and time again; what we neglect in this generation will be rejected in the next.  

In the book of Isaiah, we read about what happens to a nation that has ignored the Jewish traditions of re-telling the stories of the past. Having forsaken God and forgotten the source of Israel’s blessings, the result is that “justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:14

   So, as we celebrate the Magna Carta, let’s remember that historical truth is important, and the biblical source of our human rights is worth contending for. Let’s learn the lessons of history about cultural amnesia and heed the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his analysis of the secular wasteland of Russia: “I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.”  

Dave Landrum is director of advocacy at Evangelical Alliance