Magna Carta service

The Bishop preached at a special Magna Carta service in celebration of the City of London’s Mayoral Charter at the Temple Church on 14th May 2015.

Temple Church Anniversary of the London Charter

Tonight we celebrate a significant moment in the ascent of London from the Roman ruin King Alfred knew to our capital city. On May 9th King John was here at the Temple. The Master of the Temple in those days was the equivalent to Mark Carney, a central banker and representative of a sophisticated international organisation responsible for generating the enormous resources required for military action and state of the art fortifications in the remaining Crusader enclaves in the Holy Land. Serlo the Mercer was Mayor that year in 1215 and it is good to be commemorating the charter in which King John granted to the barons of the city of London the right “to choose to themselves every year a mayor” in the presence of our own Lord Mayor. The charter stipulates that the Mayor should after election be presented to the King “or our justice if we shall not be present”. As we all know it is still the custom for the Lord Mayor at the beginning of his or her tenure to process to the Royal Courts to appear before the Lord Chief Justice.

It is probable that the charter was all part of King John’s plan to bemuse and divide his enemies until his new ally the Pope could enter the lists and further demoralise the opposition coalition of barons and bishops. Indeed as the King signed the charter here in the Temple, the rebellion was faltering and his tactics of delay and concessions, which could be repudiated later, appeared to be succeeding. There were Londoners however who were not conciliated by the new charter and in alliance with a rebel leader Robert fitzWalter, Lord of Baynard’s Castle they took over the city on May 17th and barred the gates against the royal army. By doing so they changed the military balance of power. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton was asked to arrange a truce and the road to Runnymede was opened up. Nevertheless the charter represents an important milestone in the story of London’s progress from shell to shard.

It was also the prelude to the assembly at Runnymede and the sealing of Magna Carta on June 15th 800 years ago. Once again the Master of the Temple was present as was my predecessor William de Ste Mere Eglise.

Much work has been done in preparation for the anniversary not least by Robert Worcester and his team, cheered on by our own judiciary and the American Bar Association. Distilling the significance and legacy of the Charter there are three notable principles in a mass of detailed prescriptions. *There must be due process. *The monarch is answerable to the law. *Rights language is extended to “all free men” and not just an elite group.

So deeply embedded are these ideas in our own day that they can seem self-evident. Recent research, however, not least by Professor John Baldwin of Johns Hopkins University has illuminated the contribution made by the Judaeo-Christian context in which the ideas of the Charter emerged. Professor Baldwin is a contributor to the recently published book of essays edited by the present Master of the Temple and Mark Hill QC; entitled “Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law”. As a scholar in the University of Paris, Stephen Langton, Archbishop in 1215 used the Book of Deuteronomy to argue for a written form of law that would set out the rightful activity of kings and restrain their habitual excesses.

Throughout much of the ancient world Caesar was god and political power was hedged with divinity. Law was regarded as the expression of the will of the ruler just as in more recent times it has been seen as the servant of the Party or the revolutionary avant garde. Religion too has often been tempted to turn this position on its head and proclaim God as Caesar. There are many examples from the strange mediaeval delusion that if political power were to be confided to clergymen all would be well. In fact Pope Innocent III was induced by his ally King John to denounce the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who were seeking to subordinate the monarch to the rule of law as accomplices of “the disturbers of the kingdom”. The Judaeo-Christian tradition derived from the Bible however not only sees royal power as limited by law but also opens up a space for secular life in which Caesar is not God and God is not Caesar. When Jesus was provocatively asked whether it was acceptable to pay taxes to the Roman occupying power, he pointed to Caesar’s head on a coin and said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. This has led to a dynamic culture in which there is a perpetual and salutary negotiation about the balance and relationship between the sphere of God and that of political power.

Then again the concept of the equality of human beings which feeds into the principle that rights belong to “all free men” has developed from one of the most explosive assertions of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. There is no place for a caste system and the belief that human beings are all alike made in the image of God has proved over and over again subversive of notions of natural and inevitable hierarchy. In our own day when the possibility of developing enhanced human beings by genetic engineering has become conceivable we shall have to re-visit the foundations and the consequences of our belief in human equality. Other times and other cultures suggest that the notion of human equality is not at all self-evident.

Part of the embarrassment of admitting the Judaeo-Christian foundations of much of our culture is the understandable suspicion that those who claim a hotline to God are dangerously unaccountable. We have had to re-learn in our own day what was obvious to the inhabitants of these islands in times when parts of the population had become obstinately metaphysical and religious fanaticism destroyed beauty and fuelled civil war, religion can be very dangerous. But there is another danger that in the absence of the God and Father of us all, people begin to regard themselves as so many little gods with a diminishing sense of accountability to anything outside their own pleasure.

In the lesson read by our Lord Mayor, Solomon acknowledges that he has been chosen judge and ruler of the people yet “though a man be never so perfect among the children of men, yet if thy wisdom be not with him, he shall be nothing regarded”.  Knowledge has given us power so great that more than any previous generation we could destroy our planetary home, rapidly by the power which comes from splitting  the atom or slowly by losing respect for matter, seeing it as something simply to be exploited until it degrades and we leave our children a polluted and ravaged Eden. Solomon’s prayer is for the wisdom which transcends knowledge because it sets what we could do in the context of our accountability to God and other life forms as Viceroys and not Masters of the earth, creatures of the dust who acknowledge the limits on our monarchical power.

Jesus Christ whose participation in the divine life we celebrate in this festival of the Ascension taught that the very first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little god. He came in the form of a servant and he was baptised in the river Jordan at the lowest place on earth, 1300 feet below sea level to be precise. For any civilisation to flourish; for any city to prosper, we need Kings and Judges and Mayors and even Bishops with a servant spirit, who know that far from being entitled to special treatment they are accountable to the Spirit who informs the Common Good and is expressed in the Law.