Your basket
Your basket
0 items - £0.00

Personal tools

Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Magna Carta Festival Eucharist, 14 June 2015

Skip to content. | Skip to navigation


Magna Carta Festival Eucharist, 14 June 2015

by glynch — last modified 17 Jun, 2015 05:06 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached at the Festival Eucharist in Salisbury Cathedral for Magna Carta's 800th anniversary.

Texts: Deuteronomy 30.15-20; 1 Peter 2.13-17; John 8.31-36

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. “ (John 8.31-32)

Truth and Magna Carta are not always in easy relationship. A powerful mythology has grown around the document. Everyone is in favour but vagueness about the facts allows for a breadth of interpretation.  Tony Hancock, as foreman of the Jury, in an impassioned speech addressing his peers, asked:

"Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?“  

He did better with the implications of whatever Magna Carta is:

“My friends, it is not just (the accused) who is on trial here today but the fair name of British justice ...?"

It took about ten weeks for the Pope to annul Magna Carta. Yet within this service we have heard some of its enduring commitments: 

  • that the English Church shall be free and shall have its rights intact and its liberties unfringed upon;
  • that the free man will be judged by his peers or by the law of the land;
  • to no man will justice be sold, denied or deferred.

They are important principles about the rule of law which now have resonance throughout the world.

The City of London was given responsibility to establish fair weights and measures.

There will be standard measures of wine, ale and corn (the London Quarter), throughout the kingdom.  There should also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet and haberject.... Weights are to be standardised similarly.

Wealth creation requires fair dealing, the confidence for repeat business. It is undermined by the absence of justice, as the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England pointed out this last week.

If some clauses of Magna Carta are easily recognised, others today are a puzzle. At the train station an advertisementsponsored by Wilsons quotes clause 6: "Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing."  It was a very different world 800 years ago. On the other hand, the second part of that clause is that, “Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.”  That is the origin of the giving of public notice of a wedding, either at the Registry Office or by the publication of the Banns of Marriage in church.

Perhaps the most important thing about Magna Carta is that it provided a means by which power is held to account through the rule of law. Not that the rule of law sufficient in itself to guarantee justice, but it does provide the basis for a fair process.

Why did the Cathedral at Old Sarum receive a copy of Magna Carta and why has this cathedral retained it so carefully that we now have what everyone agrees is the best of the original four copies to survive?

Let’s be clear. We have a copy because the Church was powerful. It is likely that the scribe for our copy of Magna Carta was the Bishop of Salisbury’s scribe though the Bishop of Salisbury was not at Runnymede.  King John was forced to accept the demands of the Archbishop, Bishops and Barons. He was urged to do so by his half-brother, William Longspeé, Long Sword, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, whose effigy is in the nave.

Elias of Dereham, steward to Archbishop Stephen Langton, was entrusted with delivering copies, one of which he brought to Old Sarum. Elias later became a canon of Old Sarum before masterminding the building of this Cathedral. That is why there is a Diocesan pilgrimage this afternoon from Old Sarum to here for a Liber Tea. 

A cathedral would be one of very few institutions capable of caring for a document for 800 years. Holding a copy of Magna Carta is a sign of religious power but it is also a sign of this community's faithful sense of responsibility to pray for those in authority and for the good of the wider society. The principles of Magan Carta are  at least partly rooted in the Scriptures and the concern of God’s people with justice. We heard it in the readings from Deuteronomy – “Therefore choose life” – and from 2 Peter that we should pray for those in authority. We will hear it in the new anthem by John Rutter in which he sets seven Biblical texts that connect with Magna Carta.

Introducing the specially commissioned ‘A Letter of Rights’ last night, the composer Tarik O’Regan spoke about our copy of Magna Carta as a ‘holy relic’. He hoped that Alice Goodman’s words and his music would help us in this cathedral to “hear the space you are in.” 

Alice Goodman’s text is shockingly physical. Like the construction of this building the creation of Magna Carta involved death and sacrifice.

This is the initial sacrifice...
Wool, meat, and skin, and bones:
all gets used.
Stay with the skin.
Everything begins with a sacrifice, the bloodshed behind the ink.
Behind the Charter of Liberties. 

We enter this space through a door from the outside world, to a place set apart that is holy. This place points to the goodness of the whole of God’s creation.  We come to be here by the font in which we are baptised into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what people have done in this building formerly 800 years, consciously coming before God together.

At the east end to which we look, beyond the altar, since 1981  there is  a window. The panels depict both 20th-century prisoners of conscience and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, who is represented as a first-century prisoner of conscience. To Sydney H. Evans, then Dean, this is, ''the call of a [person] to a higher power, to the universal, uttered in a terrible moment of doubt and loneliness.''

It is the fulfilment of the Isaiah agenda, read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his adult ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
 because he has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19)

That vision informs our thoughts, prayers actions. As we were reminded at the concert last night, ‘Texts are acts’.

Magna Carta also articulates a call to a higher power. It is not just a document but a spirit by which we live. From it has come the modern tradition of human rights and our equalities legislation. This is not settled territory but we should be thankful of the Christian contribution and willing to engage with the debates.

How will the spirit of Magna Carta impact on the discussion of human rights that is going to be central within the life of this Parliament? What are British values and British rights if they are not international human values and human rights?

Last night, ‘A Letter of Rights’  came from a Directive of the European Parliament and Council that a person arrested on suspicion of a crime must be given a letter of rights in a language they understand, a letter  they can hold and keep, read and refer to. 

Alice Goodman wrote:

The governed are neither slaves nor
victims. They are neither the merchandise
nor the raw product of that which governs them...

Set apart from the world God made and loves, between the font and the vision of God’s kingdom, Magna Carta is one of thethings that helps us to “hear the space we are in”.

In John's gospel Jesus says that the spirit will lead us into all truth. The trajectory of Magna Carta is not just the liberties of free men but of all people. That is the vision of

A single sheet of parchment,
about fifteen by twenty inches.


So we pray,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;
from the laziness that is content with half-truth;
from the cowardice that shrinks from new truth
O God of Truth deliver us. Amen.


Document Actions