This information is presented through the courtesy of the Runnymede Borough Council and the Magna Carta Trust - Hon. Secretary Tim Williams
Magna Carta Anniversary Sermon
Runnymede, 16 June 2001
TEXT: Galatians 3.21, 23-29
CONTEXT: The Reading and your sermon marks the start of the Re-dedication Section (the final one). Following it the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, will offer a short reading from Magna Carta and then lead a prayer of re-dedication. The State prayers will follow from this.
After I choose this provocative reading from Paul's letter to the Galatians, I was hugely amused to read in the introductory text of my New Oxford Annotated Bible that "the letter of Paul to the Galatians is often called, ‘The Magna Carta’ of Christian liberty. The reason for this is that Paul's letter deals head on with the tension that exists in the Judeo-Christian tradition between the absolute demands of the Law (Torah) and culture on the one hand; and the experience of the universal, liberating love of God to which the prophets testified and Jesus revealed on the other hand. The crisis of faith Paul and the early Jewish Christians faced is whether a Gentile needs to become a Jew before he can become a Christian. The letter to the Galatians lays the foundation for the classic argument that the children of Abraham are saved by their faith and not their works under the law. Believe me, this question was far more explosive and threatening for the future of the gospel of Jesus Christ than anything the Reformation or modern science has come up with since.
The temptation Paul faces is to repudiate the law (and as such his whole sense of himself and God) or to say to new converts that in order to experience the liberating love of God in Christ they must first put themselves into religious straight-jackets. There are plenty of pitfalls in the scenario Paul faces. He knows that if he gets it wrong he could either stop the gospel of Jesus Christ dead in its tracks or else find himself repudiating the very faith in God that, he believes, laid the foundation for the message Jesus Christ.
The readings we had earlier in the service were an eloquent reminder of where we stand without justice and civil society [A few weeks ago I was in Nigeria. A country endowed with human and natural resources that are beyond what most can imagine. And yet, its capacity to harness and utilize that wealth has been virtually ruined by the degradation of civil society. Successive regimes, with no mandate or legitimacy, were unable to stop the rot of violence and corruption. Things are so bad, that the first democratically elected government in a generation hardly knows where to begin: with its mountain of debt and looted billions; with its unpaid school-teachers and disaffected youth; or the competing regional and religious claims which seethe just beneath the surface of the country.
The irony is that if any of you went to Nigeria, you would be astonished by how religious a country it is. And thank God it is, because in many places they are one of the few faces of civil society capable of delivering health, education and welfare or for the masses. And yet, many of those who have robbed the people of their hope during the week are also in the churches and mosques of the country. More depressing is the fact that there are those in both mosques and churches who, in violation of the fundamental values and truths that undergird their sacred texts, twist the faith to serve their own political ends. The tempting solution to this problem -- particularly for us in Western Europe at the end of the last 100 years -- is to put religion in one corner and politics in another and pretend that they can have nothing to do with each other. Another solution -- but no less disastrous as we have seen in the Taliban in Afghanistan -- is to think that if you have enough religion you can do without politics.]
One of the reasons we have of the glorious experience of so much liberty and wealth in this country is that the power of religion, politics and justice (each with its own dreadful potential for corruption) have been seen to be complementary and not competitive. Indeed, the constitutional foundation and history which we celebrate this morning, is built on the understanding that religion, politics and justice while, touching each person in different ways, are interdependent powers which must be harnessed for the good of all. The values and principles of each cross-fertilize the others. As Nigeria so painfully demonstrates, when civil society breaks down and the three powers live in isolation from each other, one is left with the worst of each and little of the best.
It is no accident that 786 years ago it was an archbishop that brought together King and Baron on this site and brokered the peace. It is no accident that the [first] clause of the Magna Carta is, "The Church in England shall be free." It is no accident that where in our own European history has reached its darkest hours: be it in our own Civil War or in Soviet Russia, religion has either been enthroned or banished. And it is no accident that, despite the onslaught of two world wars, economic cycles and revolutions in technology and understanding, in this United Kingdom the inter-relationship of Faith, Politics and Justice continues.
When any of these part lets down the people (and in what generation has not each part at one time or another dreadfully done so?) then the people must demand better of us. When governments fail to govern in the interest of all then it must be called to account. Where justice fails to be blind it must be reformed. Where the church corrupts its gospel of peace it must be purged. But such failings do not, I hope, mean we give up on the notion of government because of apathetic voters; or we give up on justice because of its miscarriages; or indeed give up on the Church when it proves itself of little faith.
Power needs to be held to account, to both people and to God,. Freedom is the supreme gift of God to the human race. The power we have to exercise it and make choices is the measure of trust the Almighty places in our hands. We forget its source, the giver of the gift at our peril. Indeed, when we do so, the only forces which find liberty are those of corruption, greed and mayhem. I am glad to say that one of the great breakthroughs of the last century was lasting peace between Christian denominations and deep dialogue and common understanding amongst those of all faiths in Britain. This blessing of peace will release yet more blessings for all the communities. Though often vilified in an age were niche marketing and a lust for extremes marks so much of our post modern world, the moderation and humility of the Church of England is, dare I say it, something to cherish and honor. That so many faith communities find this so easy to celebrate and some secular forces in government find it so hard, is a challenge we must not run away from. Magna Carta and its principles bring us face to face with the mixed claims and power of Church and State; and the proper demands of Faith and Justice.
With so much success behind us and the self-evident blessing which for centuries have flown from this interdependence, let us strive to support the essential foundation of faith on which the principles and powers of our State is built. For without the churches and all faith communities, history tells us no society can long remain civil. And were faith is chased from the courts of princes and judges, good government too soon follows her.
Only when the forces of good, healthy and wholesome and inclusive religion and politics are brought together, do the divisions that separate Jew and Greek; men and women, slave and free break down. This is the inheritance of the promise that God made to Abraham, which Paul, in Christ, claims for the sake of all.
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