Magna Carta – celebrating 800 years of freedom

The Bishop of Coventry spoke at July’s General Synod in response to a motion calling for celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June 2015.

His speech clearly identified links between Magna Carta and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and particularly Article 18. Here is the full text of his speech:

As a former university chaplain in Runnymede Deanery, a regular attender at St John’s Egham and a successor to William, bishop of Coventry, one of the reverend Fathers who advised King John, I congratulate Keith Malcouronne for bringing this motion to Synod and for his excellent background paper and speech.

I wholeheartedly support the motion for a host of reasons, three among them.

First, the Magna Carta is a theological document: it enshrines a vision of humanity, governance, and society in which God’s commitment to the dignity of human beings and to that which we have been calling over these days, ‘the common good’, relativizes the rights of the state, requiring its authorities to accept its responsibilities to its people under God.

Second, it is an ecclesial document: it acknowledges the transformative effect on human life of Christian wisdom and it promises that the Church shall be free.

Third, it is a humanitarian document: it embodies principles that embed freedom and justice in the lives of the nations. The Magna Carta is an incalculable gift to the world, as relevant today as it was 800 years ago. A line can be traced between Clauses 38 and 39, clauses that protect the individual from unfair trial and denial of justice, to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

And it is to one article in the Declaration of Human Rights on which I would like to focus my remaining comments. Article 18 states with majestic clarity that:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

Just as the reverend Fathers insisted that the king declare the English Church to be free, with its rights undiminished, and liberties unimpaired so, drawing deeply on the same Christian wisdom, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights places inviolable responsibility on all the rulers of all the nations – regardless of their own religion or lack of it – to protect and promote the right of individual people to believe their faith personally, express their faith publically and, if they so wish, change their faith permanently.

And yet, 75% of the world’s population live in countries where the Article’s rights are denied them. From Shia Muslims in Bahrain, to Baha’is in Iran; from Sufi muslims in Somalia to Buddhists in Tibet, members of religious Faiths suffer a catalogue of appalling abuse.

Among them, are the people that Angela Merkel described as “the most persecuted religion in the world”: the estimated 250 million Christians suffering from persecution in one form or another that may lead to torture and execution.

May this motion before us motivate the English Church, declared to be free in 1215 in our land, to work for the full implementation of Article 18 in all the lands of the world:

  • by commending our Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its commitment to the freedom of religion and belief as one of its key human rights priorities and calling it to be resolute in its actions;
  • by working with individual parliamentarians who are showing remarkable zeal in this cause (including Baroness Berridge who spoke excellently at a Fringe Event on Saturday);
  • by supporting the work of agencies who work often at great risk for religious freedom;
  • by heeding Mary Judkin’s call for Synod to debate the scandal of the persecution of Christians around the globe;
  • and may we pray for the millions of people who are denied the rights of Article 18, especially among them, the household of faith: our brothers and sisters in Christ, of whom the world is not worthy but to whom the world owes the right to live out their faith in the Son who, indeed, makes us free.