National   Society  Magna  Charta  Dames and Barons

Established 1909

Washington DC - April 14, 2007



A Lecture by Canon Professor Mike West,

Chancellor of Lincoln

It is my profound belief that the Great Charter that emerged from the conflict between King John and the barons at Runnymede in 1215 changed the world.  The seeds of freedom and democracy that were sown in England at that time were to bear fruit in the instruments of the French Revolution, the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  It is my contention that Magna Carta has not lost its power as the centuries have passed and it stands today as an icon of freedom and a foundational document for the democratic process.  It challenges our society to live up to the highest ideals in political, social and religious life and demands our attention as we address the challenges of the twenty first century.

 I belief that Magna Carta has the power to challenge individuals, societies and world governments because of its iconic status.  And that iconic status has emerged over the centuries.  Now I am a theologian by trade and I do not use the word ‘icon’ lightly.  I note that the dictionary definition of the word now includes ‘a person regarded as a sex symbol’ and, ‘a pictorial representation of a facility available on a computer that can be implemented by a cursor’.  However, my understanding of the word goes back to the early centuries of the Christian Church.  In the Greek language, icon is one of the words that we would translate as image.  Therefore in the Greek Bible man is made ‘according to the icon (image) and likeness of God’ in Genesis 1:26, and, in Colossians 1:15, Christ is ‘the icon (image) of the invisible God’.  Of course when we think of religious icons we bring to mind those painted images of Christ, the Saints or Mary, Mother of God that are one of the great legacies of Byzantine art.  However, we should note that they were not just considered to be sacred art.  They were deemed by the Church to express in visual form the central doctrines of the Christian faith.  Byzantine art was constructed so that the lines of perspective drew the person who gazed upon it into the scene it represented.  So a religious icon was, and indeed still is, deemed to be an act of devotion that provides a window onto the divine.   There is an intimate relationship between the image and the reality it represents, between the person who created it, the people who interpret it and the shared understanding that they have of its power to change lives.

 I believe that icons, whether religious or not, exist only in relationship to the situation that gave them birth and to the contexts in which they are interpreted.   This is true of texts in general of course.  They can never be only the possession of those who created them.  There is a wonderfully poetic moment in the fourth book of Rabelais’s ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’.  Pantagruel is far out to sea when he hears words spoken but cannot see the speaker.  It transpires that these are words that have been frozen the previous winter and had not become audible until the coming of good weather.  Texts need the warming influence of human interest and commitment before they can live and be heard.  Indeed, texts like religious icons can only exist when there is a relationship between those who gave them birth and those who interpret them anew in each generation.  Texts are not merely historical documents that can be interpreted only in the context in which they were written.  Texts live for us when we bring our experience to bear upon them and upon the ways in which they have been interpreted by previous generations.

 And this is true of Magna Carta.  If the 1215 text is iconic it is because of the extra-ordinary events that helped to create it and the way that those events have been interpreted through the years.  We know that the text of the Magna Carta of 1215 was not as unique as many people imagine.  It owed much to a Charter of Liberties issued by Henry I in 1100 and was reissued three times in various forms in the reign of Henry III before being confirmed by Edward I in 1297.  The iconic power of Magna Carta lay not so much in the detail of the text as in the symbolic nature of the events at Runnymede.  These had embedded themselves in the people’s consciousness and in the way they have interpreted the text.  Therefore when the parliamentarians found themselves in conflict with King Charles I in the seventeenth century, it was to the 1215 Magna Carta that they turned.  This was because, as the conflict between King and Parliament came to a head, the parliamentarians imagined themselves confronting Charles I just as the barons had confronted King John at Runnymede.  And they used the Magna Carta to argue, in their generation, for a parliamentary system of government that not only enshrined the rights that the barons won in 1215, but extended them to all male subjects of the crown. 

 Edward Coke was significant in the way he interpreted Magna Carta at this time and once asserted that ‘Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign’.  For Coke and his supporters, the 1215 Magna Carta represented the best way of claiming parliamentary supremacy over the authority of the crown.  Indeed, it came to be seen not only as a way of confronting the authority of King Charles I, but as a document restoring ancient English rights, dating from a supposed ‘Golden Age’ before the Norman conquest of 1066.

 It is undoubtedly true that the content of the Magna Carta was much less significant than the way that it came to be perceived in the popular mind.  Although only three statutes remain in English law that can be traced back to Magna Carta, it is clear that its influence on the thinking of men like Coke meant that the Great Charta was critical in the way in which Britain’s parliamentary democracy developed.  It is also not surprising that, when the first English settlers made the hazardous journey across the Atlantic to colonize the New World, they took Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta with them. 

 It is therefore true to say that Magna Carta was actively present at the birth of two great democratic systems, that of Britain and the United States.  It has also played its part in the constitutional development of those countries that began life as British colonies or who were subject to British rule, like Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia.   Indeed, in 1952 the Australian Government bought a copy of the 1297 Magna Carta issued by Edward I on the basis that it constituted an important part of Australia’s constitutional and legal history.

 Parliamentary democracy was born in Britain out of the conflict of the Civil War but was part of a process that had evolved over centuries.  Even today the United Kingdom has no written constitution.  Its laws are now proposed and enacted by the two houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords, where final executive power resides.  Although the Monarch retains certain constitutional powers, including the right to dissolve parliament and the right to appoint Prime Ministers and Archbishops, these are not now exercised outside parliament’s control.  The American judge Justice Bradley, giving a judgment in Louisiana in 1873 noted that,

‘England has no written constitution, it is true, but it has an unwritten one, resting on the acknowledged and frequently declared privileges of Parliament and the people, to violate which in any material respect would produce a revolution in an hour’. 

 In 1787 the new United States of America gave a model constitution to the developing world.  It marked a settlement of conflict and inaugurated a new era of freedom under the law.  In many ways the constitution was seen to be an act of completion, a final settlement in which political definitions, principles and processes were agreed.  For many years both constitutional systems have been held up as exemplars of democratic government.  They were of course of their time and it would be true to say that those who constructed the American Constitution failed to consider the wishes and needs of indigenous peoples, African Americans and women, deemed at the time to be represented by their men-folk.  Also, in the United Kingdom women have fought long and hard for the vote and immigrants from the once extensive British Empire have suffered widespread discrimination.  In both nations there is concern about the increased power of the executive over those who have been democratically elected and about a decrease in the rights and freedom of the individual in the light of a real and perceived terrorist threat.  There are also concerns about the status and voice of immigrant groups and migrant workers.   Clearly democracy is an ongoing project and one that is facing fresh challenges today.  Clearly also, that iconic document that was present at the birth of these two great democracies, the Great Charter of 1215, will be an important rallying cry in that cause.

 In 1787 Alexander Hamilton wondered whether, ‘societies are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection or choice or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.  It remains an interesting issue.  The British and American constitutions were born, partly at least, out of conflict and war, and the world today is full of nations in which peaceful debate about constitutional change is difficult and demanding.  However, there are some examples of good practice.  The South African Constitution of 1996 is widely regarded as a model constitutional text for the twenty first century.  This is partly because the government was able to find ways in which it could give a voice to every section of its population before, during and after the new constitution was finalized.  It also gave itself time to undertake the process thoroughly.  The recent constitutional discussions in Canada have taken seriously the rights of women and indigenous peoples and examples of new and open processes in constitutional change can be found in Nicaragua, Brazil, Uganda, Eritrea and Rwanda.  The constitutional review process in Kenya has as its stated goal ‘a people driven review process whose final product will be a people owned constitution’. 

 Now it is clear that many of these processes will be fragile and many will not succeed in achieving their goals.  However, the aspiration to create democratic constitutions through truly democratic process is an ideal that is supported by international law that encompasses social inclusion, personal security and freedom of speech.  It is surely also in that line of thinking which found birth in the Magna Carta of 1215.  It also challenges the more mature democracies like America and the United Kingdom to rethink their own practice and to engage in a process of mutual learning that will enable the voices of all their people to be heard afresh in the development of their national lives.  For many people in the United Kingdom and in America, Iraq serves as an unfortunate reminder that the spread of democracy lies uncomfortably with forced regime change, military occupation, a plausible exit strategy and therefore a restricted time frame for constitutional development, whatever the motives for good.

 Clause 39 of Magna Carta declares, ‘No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land’.

 This clause is rightly seen as a declaration which, although written at a particular time for a particular context, resonates down the centuries and makes Magna Carta a powerful icon of freedom.  Freedom of course has many contexts.  The most enduring and the most direct legacy of Magna Carta is the right of Habeas Corpus, a right which arises from Clauses 36, 38, 39 and 40 of the 1215 Charter and states that a person should not be imprisoned or held in custody without a fair trial.

 These rights find further expression in Article 3 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which states that, ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’.  One of the institutions that has put a lasting stain on the reputation of both the United Kingdom and the United States has been their involvement in the slave trade. 

 From about 1619 until 1865 people of African descent were legally enslaved within the present United States of America and merchants from the United Kingdom were heavily involved in the trade from the sixteenth century.  In the United Kingdom the campaign to abolish the slave trade was led by Sir William Wilberforce.  An evangelical Christian, he was motivated by a strong sense that the slave trade was morally reprehensible and against natural justice.  He campaigned for its abolition from the late eighteenth century but was not successful until the Slave Trade Act received royal assent on March 25 1807.  The struggle to outlaw slavery would not finally come to fruition in the United States until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipatory Proclamation of January 1st 1863 made the abolition of slavery an aim of the American Civil War.  The last slaves were not however finally freed in the South until the surrender of all Confederate troops in spring 1865.

 It is likely that both Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce would be horrified by the extent to which slavery still exists in our world today.  As a legally permitted labour system, traditional slavery has been abolished everywhere if not completely stamped out.  However, today the word ‘slavery’ covers a variety of human rights issues that include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour, the use of children in armed conflict, debt bondage, sex trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution.  Slavery-like practices are often clandestine but evidence compiled by the United Nations human rights bodies suggests that these practices are vast and widespread.

 Child labour is in great demand.  Many children between seven and ten years old are forced to work up to fourteen hours a day for a wage that is less than a third of the adult rate.  Some are kidnapped, held in remote camps and chained at night to prevent their escape.  They are put to work on road-building and quarrying.  The forcible recruitment of children into military service has been reported in many parts of the world and many have died or left permanently disabled and badly traumatized.  

 Women are vulnerable to many forms of slavery and abuse in our society today.  The recruitment, transport and exploitation of women as prostitutes in a number of countries is of particular concern.  Women are often groomed for the growing sex markets in Japan, Europe or North America through the offer of waitressing, secretarial, packing or entertainment work and find themselves in effective bondage to their masters.  It is a business estimated to be worth about £12 billion globally and slave sales are being held in bars, basements, airport lounges and streets across Europe and North America.

 The Magna Carta of 1215 promoted a concept of liberty that has resonated throughout history.  Slavery takes many forms and the unlawful imprisonment and torture of individuals throughout our world is roundly condemned by all charters and proclamations that promote human rights.  Those who gained freedom from slavery have found the road to full citizenship difficult and challenging.  In recent generations those who fought for civil rights for black Americans and those who challenged apartheid in South Africa have sought to promote the truth that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.   However, in both the United Kingdom and America questions have been asked in recent years about the imprisonment without trial of foreign nationals, terrorist suspects and asylum seekers.  

 Over the centuries Magna Carta has been a friend to those peoples who have been persecuted by the state and have had their rights curtailed by various kinds of abuse and have suffered various forms of slavery.  Magna Carta challenges us today lest we perpetrate these abuses on those who we feel are not worthy of the dignity and rights due to them as individuals.  And it also challenges us to be vigilant lest our own governments curtail our own freedom in the name of national security.

 Clause 1 of the 1215 Magna Carta guarantees the independence of the English Church.  From the time that Constantine had converted to Christianity and it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century there was tension between Church and State.  In the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor had supreme power over the church and controlled its highest representative, the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Orthodoxy was the state religion.  However, in the West the growth in the authority of the Papacy led to ongoing tensions between Church and State across Western Europe. 

 This was the context in which the independence of the Church was established in Magna Carta.  It was to be independent of the authority of the King, but reliant on the authority of the Pope.  Subsequent history was destined to challenge this.  Following a dispute with the Pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII pronounced himself head of the Church in England in 1534.  Henry was a convinced Catholic and was not influenced in his decision by protestant ideas that were entering England from Europe, but in the years that followed, Protestants and Catholics vied for the heart and mind of the Church of England.  However, following the turbulent years of the catholic Queen Mary, Elizabeth I reunited the Church of England around an Act of Uniformity of 1559 that gave her supreme authority over the Church and forbade the use of any services in church not authorized by Archbishop Cranmer’s newly constructed ‘Book of Common Prayer’.  From this time Catholics were unable to worship legally in England and were barred from public office.  Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662 under Charles II, those unable to conform to this act (the non-conformists) found themselves in a similar position.  These acts were not fully repealed until the nineteenth century.

 Many of the first English settlers in the New World were members of the Church of England and ten of the colonies in the New World had Church of England foundations.  However, there were those who travelled to the new colonies in order to gain the freedom of worship that was denied them in England and in other parts of Europe. The Plymouth Colony was therefore founded by Separatists, the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was founded by Baptists and the Province of Pennsylvania by Quakers.  The Province of Maryland was initially founded by Irish Catholics and Catholics were tolerated in East and West Florida when it was ceded to Great Britain by Spain in 1763.

 Faced with a multitude of denominations, the founding fathers of the United States of America were persuaded that the only way forward for the new nation was to make a clear separation between Church and State.  Thomas Jefferson was clear that the new constitution had effectively built a wall between Church and State by which both could flourish more effectively and in an 1811 letter to the Baptist Churches, Thomas Maddison declared that the, ‘practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both’.  The state would sponsor no particular religious tradition and every citizen would be free to exercise their chosen faith.

 Today, many Western democratic nations place a high importance on the separation of the institutions of Church and State.  Some nations, such as the United States, Australia and Canada have specific clauses in their constitutions which are widely interpreted as forbidding the government from favouring one religion over another.  Other democracies such as England have a constitutionally established state religion but are inclusive of other Christian denominations and other faiths.  However, as the monarch, on the advice of the Prime Minister, is still responsible for the appointment of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Diocesan Bishops and Deans of old Cathedral foundations like Lincoln, this is an issue that is part of an ongoing debate between the Church of England and the British Government at this time.

 However, many countries like Britain now have a significant Muslim population.  Over thirty countries recognise Islam as their official religion and Islam traditionally holds the view that political life can only function properly within the context of Islamic law.  Since God’s law is universally true and beneficial to all people, any state law or action opposed to God’s law would be harmful to the citizens and displeasing to God.  Many traditional Muslims consider the Western concept of separation of Church and State to be rebellion against God’s law.  There is therefore a crucial debate in contemporary Islam as to whether obedience to Islamic law is ultimately compatible with the Western secular pattern, which separates religion from civic life.

 For many Muslims in the United Kingdom this is a critical debate because they consider themselves to be British and have pledged themselves to express their citizenship in the context of a modern Western liberal democracy.  Extremism does exist on the fringes of the British Muslim community, especially among those who are young and feel alienated from British society.  However, the majority of Muslims are engaged in the common task of working through ways in which religious freedom can be successfully combined with effective citizenship.

 In our global age the establishment of open and creative relationships between Religious Faith and Civil Government is more critical than ever.  Today, all forms of religious life are subject to radicalization by fundamentalist teaching and militaristic fervour.  Christians are subject to persecution in Islamic states and Muslims are subject to persecution in Western societies whose democracies were formed within the Christian tradition.  The persecution of Jews through the centuries was to reach its awful climax in the Nazi death camps in the Second World War and the holocaust has left an indelible scar on the consciousness of the whole of humanity.  However, anti Semitism is still rife in many countries of the world and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948 is still the root cause of many international disputes today as Jew, Muslim and Christian confront each other across the Holy Land. 

 Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ declares that everybody has the right to ‘freedom of thought conscience and religion’.  This declaration stands in a line of charters and declarations that began with the Magna Carta in 1215.  In our world today there are questions about the way in which religious faith can or should support responsible citizenship and the ways in which it can or should be able to influence government policy.  The right of each individual to freely embrace a religious faith is balanced by a responsibility to support the democratic right of others to express their own faith in a different way and to join together in the establishment of appropriate forms of citizenship that are mutually rewarding.  

 To gaze on Magna Carta is to encounter a document that has changed the world.  Rather like the religious icons within the Byzantine tradition to stand before Magna Carta is to be drawn into that community of people who have used it to promote their understanding of the world and the values which support it.  As an icon of democracy and a foundation document for freedom it underpins the written and unwritten constitutions of the world’s great democracies.  It stands at the beginning of a journey that has taken humanity from the confrontation between King John and his Barons in the beginning of the thirteenth century to the global issues facing the world at the beginning of the twenty first century.  

 As the Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral it is my privilege to be one of those people charged with the care of one of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta.  Lincoln Cathedral has been the home of Magna Carta since it was sent to Bishop Hugh in 1215.  For most of that time it has been housed in the magnificent Cathedral Library.  However, we do know that it spent some time during the last century framed and hung up on the Chapter Clerk’s wall.  Indeed, elderly members of the Cathedral congregation remember being shown Magna Carta and actually holding it in their hands.

 Today Magna Carta lives in its high tech environmentally controlled secure display case in Lincoln Castle when it is not in on tour but the visually stunning Mediaeval and Wren libraries remain a treasure house containing 270 other mediaeval manuscripts and an impressive collection of rare printed books that attract visitors and scholars from all over the world.

 The Cathedral believes that it has a sacred responsibility to make its collections available to a wide public.  By taking the Magna Carta to different venues throughout the world we are committed to stimulating a wide ranging debate on the future of freedom and democracy among people of all ages and nationalities.  As you know Magna Carta is currently in Virginia Beach and will be in Philadelphia at the Constitution Centre in early July.  We are hoping that Magna Carta will then visit other centres in the United States and we are seeking individuals and institutions that are prepared to journey with us in this challenging task of interpreting Magna Carta for today’s generation.  It is my hope, as Chancellor of Lincoln and the person charged with the educational outreach work of the Cathedral, to find individuals and institutions committed to working with us in this task.  I would like to see schools from the United Kingdom and the United States joining together to learn about issues of citizenship that confront both our nations.  I would like to see student exchanges, conferences, scholarships, student placements, joint exhibitions, academic research. 

 Magna Carta is but one of Lincoln’s treasures and we are prepared to put all its resources at the disposal of this important project.  We are used to thinking of the United Kingdom and the United States as being in a special relationship.  We say with humour that we are two peoples, divided by a common language, but we would be wise to recognise our common heritage and to find ways in which we can strengthen this at this present time.  Many of the first settlers came from Lincolnshire and would have been used to gazing on the great Cathedral that stands proudly on the only hill in the county.  I cannot claim ancestry myself from any who played out the drama at Runnymede but I can lay claim to being in a line of Chancellors that can be traced back to that time and I can say with some humility that I still live in the Chancery in the close at Lincoln where Chancellors have lived continuously since 1340.  I believe that those of us associated with Magna Carta by birth or by office share a sacred duty to spread its powerful iconic message throughout the world – that is a task our organisations share.

 Magna Carta will soon be 800 years old but it has not lost its power as the centuries have passed.  Many groups have claimed its allegiance but none can ever own it.  It does not belong to any political party or religious group.  It is not belong to Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.  It will walk with you only as long as you tread the path of freedom and democracy and it will challenge you when you fail to live up to those lofty standards.  Indeed, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, it is needed more than ever today to challenge our society to live up to the very highest ideals in political, social and religious life.  That is why it is truly iconic and why it is more important today than it ever has been.

 I will leave you with the words of Judge Learned Hand, spoken in 1944

“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, upon courts.  These are false hopes.  Believe me those are false hopes.  Liberty lives in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

This is the real, iconic power of Magna Carta.  Although its virtues are enshrined in both our legal and political systems, it lives first and foremost, as it has always done, in the hearts and minds of free people everywhere.  It is our job to make sure that this remains the case in the twenty first century.

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