What the Magna Carta is not, at least in popular perception, is particularly Christian. Amid the assorted celebrations and lectures that have been commissioned to celebrate its 800th anniversary, very little attention has been given to the role of Christian faith and theology in laying the foundations from which the Magna Carta emerged.
This is a mistake on two counts. First, because the Magna Carta is the product of a deeply convoluted historical process, in which relationships between King John, the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, play a highly influential part. King John’s war with the barons might have been the spark that ignited the Magna Carta negotiations, but it was the historically fractious relationship between the English monarch and the English Church – going back through generations – that had laid down much of the kindling. The new Archbishop of Canterbury in particular, heralded by many as a “new Becket” to challenge the authority of the King, played a crucial role in not only the negotiation and formation of the Magna Carta, but also its eventual survival down through generations.
But more important, and perhaps more interesting, than this practical contribution of the Church, is the conceptual contribution of Christian theology to the principles which frame the Magna Carta’s demands. For the well-informed, the suggestion that Christian theology provides such a conceptual framework might come as something of a surprise. It is a common criticism coming from academic quarters that the public perception of the Magna Carta as a document of selfless charity illustrates a sharp disconnect from the historical reality.
Read it all from Thomas Andrew.