Saturday, 13 June 2015

Significant Anniversaries

This year will see a number of significant anniversaries.  They will all be marked in the Cathedral in a variety of ways.  On 15th June our attention will be directed to a meadow at Runnymede where King John was forced by the barons to issue the Great Charter, which became known as Magna Carta.  We will observe this as part of the Heritage Festival weekend (19-21 June), as well as it having been the theme for the Rutland Service back in March.  In September we will jump nearly 700 years to 1940 and this year being the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  This is a significant occasion for the RAF and there will be a regional service to remember this.  That service usually takes place each year in St John’s Church, where I am also vicar, but this year the Cathedral will host a larger scale commemoration.  The following month we will mark local student, Edith Cavell, who as a nurse was shot by the Germans in 1915 for aiding Allied servicemen to escape.  Again the Cathedral will host special commemorations.

The challenge in all events in the Cathedral is to relate the story of the commemoration to the Christian story.  We are not just here to paint a holy gloss over whatever anniversary anyone might bring to us to mark.  That would be to capitulate the faith that challenges and inspires us.  It always offers something of blessing to honour but also a yardstick to measure against the events to see where we can learn and rededicate ourselves to live differently.  The standards of justice and righteousness always bring a call to repentance and acknowledgement of our frailty and fallible nature.

Magna Carta has become a banner of democracy and the 800th anniversary of it being sealed at Runnymede, near Windsor, has captured the imagination.  It has inspired charters of rights and good government around the world.  It is seen as the great standard for our own government to aspire to.  It was forced on a reluctant king, who ditched it within months.  It came back though, and version four is the one that has stood the test of time, sealed in 1225.  

Influential in the framing of Magna Carta was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and he based his contributions on the biblical principles of just kings who rule for the benefit and flourishing of their people, not their oppression.  He also wanted to protect the church from the king’s medaling and interference.  The first principle that the English Church should be free was a late entry in the charter, not in earlier drafts.  The version in the cartulary of Peterborough abbey, held by the Society of Antiquaries in London, seems to reflect an earlier version.  It should be noted that Magna Carta was sealed just 40 years after King John’s father, Henry II, had been responsible for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 and Canterbury Cathedral was being rebuilt at the time of Magna Carta following a fire, the climactic focus of the building being Thomas’ shrine.  Stephen Langton was instrumental in the design of Becket’s tomb.  Revenge really is a dish best served cold and decisively: the clear message is don’t mess with the church’, and Langton seems to have kept his powder dry making his move when the time was right.  The church had already been granted its freedoms but there was in Magna Carta a cementing of ancient understandings of what it meant to be a good king.  

Incidentally I still get a thrill out of the thought that the painted ceiling in the nave of Peterborough is probably how the ceiling of Canterbury would have looked prior to the fire there in 1174 and not only did we have a reliquary and chapel for Becket, but the building forms a link too.  Benedict, the Abbot of Peterborough at the time the ceiling was constructed, had been a monk at Canterbury and this may have inspired the décor[1].

Magna Carta was not quite the bill of rights at the time it was issued that it is assumed to be, though its scope has been expanded over the centuries as freedoms have become more universal.  The 1215 version protects the free, which did not include serfs and others in feudal bondage.  But as the freedoms we now take for granted increased over the centuries, the protections for ‘freemen’ have been expanded, and also extended to include women in the 20th century as emancipation increased.  The 1225 version is addressed to everyone.  That justice will be free of corruption, and not denied or delayed, is a foundational principle found in clause 40.

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice”[2]

There are provisions for inheritance and for widows, taxes will only be imposed by the agreement of parliament, liberties of certain cities are set out, goods are to be paid for and not extracted by menaces, weights and measures are to be standardized so that people are not cheated, trial by jury is enshrined in law and there is something strange about fishing on the rivers Thames and Medway.  If we read the Old Testament books of Amos and Hosea we can find the justice behind these clauses set out and their infringements castigated.  Magna Carta enshrines some foundational biblical notions of ‘doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8).

We have travelled a considerable distance since 1215 and the later versions of Magna Carta.  We have gone from a notion of the Divine Right of Kings to a constitutional monarchy with governments being elected.  Magna Carta was a landmark in the journey setting out that even the king was subject to his laws, though that has not always been obvious, and that taxes are only to be levied with the agreement of Parliament.  This year is also an election year where the sovereignty of the people is demonstrated.  We have chosen to remove monarchs in the past (Charles I, James II, Edward VIII) and even decided to appoint others overriding direct succession (Victoria), so our Queen occupies the throne by consent.  Once we pick at the threads of absolute monarchy and dictatorship, democracy is inevitable.  Magna Carta sets out some key principles for democratic and just government.  Even the strange references to fish weirs are about the protection of free movement of trade.

The Battle of Britain in 1940 was a defining moment in the RAF’s history, even though it didn’t exist as such then.  Their 100th birthday will coincide with our 900th anniversary celebrations of the rebuilding of the present Cathedral structure in 2018.  Battle of Britain Sunday is for the RAF a significant date that stands alongside 11th November.  It is sometimes said that the first duty of government is defence.  From the Bible, the first duty of government is justice, which is why Magna Carta matters so much to us.  But justice requires security for it to be maintained, so defence from aggression is linked.  As a child, my mother-in-law recalled seeing dog fights overhead in Kent and watching the planes setting off and some returning to airfields nearby.  It was a memory that stayed with her for the rest of her life.  The airborne battle was touch and go, and the outcome could easily have been different.  War brings courageous sacrifice, the putting of lives on the line in the hope of achieving liberation and the defence of freedom.  The cost is all.  It is never to be celebrated, always marked with a somber reflection on what has been required, even though we acknowledge the bravery and self-sacrifice of those who rose to the hour.  That it came to this is a moment best marked by silence.

Remembrance Services in the Cathedral, as in all churches, are moments when the struggles and conflicts of now are placed under the searing judgment of the eternal.  In the centre of the Cathedral hangs George Pace and Frank Roper’s crucifix with the Latin motto of the Carthusian order underneath, ‘Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis’.  This translates as ‘The cross stands while the world turns’.  Our faith is a still point around which so much moves and rushes, clamours and struggles.  We crucify so many in the process and the Christ there catches the broken, twisted lives that are destroyed.  It brings them to redemption and shines out a hope of a new tomorrow where peace and justice reign so that all can flourish.

Edith Cavell attended a school in Laurel Court, the large house on the western side of the cloisters.  Her lamp hangs on a pillar in the south aisle of the nave, above a memorial to her.  Although she is buried in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, formative years were spent in the shadow and shelter of Peterborough when she attended the school briefly in the 1880s.  She is remembered for treating the wounded of both sides of the First World War.  Humanity displayed amidst the hatred and violence of warfare.  One of the drives for Just War Theory is to bring restraint and limitations to the horrors of war.  It too finds its roots in the Bible.  Edith Cavell was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman from Norfolk.

She was arrested on 3rd August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers.  At 7am on 12th October she was executed by firing squad at Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, Belgium.  The night before her death her words to the chaplain who took her communion have become inspirational and are recorded on her memorial near St Martin-in-the-Fields in London:

“Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

This is a counter to the ‘my country right or wrong’ patriotism that drives divisions and builds conflict.  It holds out the hope of reconciliation when the guns fall silent and the prospect of building a new peace where justice has space to flourish.

The central theme holding these major commemorations together through this year is that of the real primary purpose of government: the upholding and pursuit of justice.  Keeping these anniversaries is a moment to recall what sustains this and the cost when it is threatened or attacked.

This is an amended version of an article in the 2015 Peterborough Cathedral Friends' Journal, correcting some errors in the one submitted for publication, for which I apologise.

[1] Paul Binski ‘Peterborough Cathedral 2001-2006 from Devastation to Restoration’ Paul Holberton Publishing 2006 page 79

[2] David Carpenter ‘Magna Carter’ Penguin Books 2015 page 53

No comments:

Post a Comment