This month the nation commemorates the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Effectively the first written constitution in European history, the Magna Carta is widely acknowledged as the foundation of British law, and is credited with influencing legal systems and frameworks across the globe: from the US Declaration of Independence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The basic story of the Magna Carta, of bad King John held to account by rebellious barons, is well-known. But what is often missed in the popular narrative is the role played by the Christian church – not only in securing the Magna Carta in its final form, but also in laying its intellectual foundations.
Rarely is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, celebrated for his role in offering vital support to the barons in his mediations with the King. Or for securing the Magna Carta’s reissue during the reign of King John’s son. Even more neglected is the fact that it was Christian beliefs which paved the way for the most celebrated principles of the Magna Carta. Regard for due process, the legitimation of arbitration in the king’s affairs, and the extension of rights language to ‘all free men’, can all be traced back to 12th-century developments in Christian theological thinking.
The failure to recognise this is not unusual. It’s particularly fashionable to charge Christianity with all the nasty bits of legal and political history – the drowning of witches, the burning of heretics, and the divine right of kings to butcher their subjects. Very rarely are links drawn between the ideals and precepts of Christian teaching and those aspects of legal and political history which we hold most dear.
This is a serious injustice, for Christianity has played a highly influential role in shaping the evolution of our political and social thought through the centuries. It’s easy to imagine that our modern, liberal political philosophy, which values the individual as an end in itself, has some sort of inevitability to it. But there is nothing universal about the value of human rights and worth. We find ourselves in this position because specific forces shaped the evolution of European ideals – a key influence of which was Christianity.
Christians would do well to remember this fact. We should also celebrate it, and be inspired to see how our faith might continue to be a force for positive political change today.
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith