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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 15 June 2015

In a Meadow at Runnymede: Magna Carta 1215-2015

It's been an absorbing day. I have been at Runnymede representing the Cathedral at the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Durham does not, like Lincoln and Salisbury, possess an original 1215 Issue, the one that King John signed in this place on this very day. But we do have the only known Issue of 1216, two others of 1225 and 1300, together with the Forest Charters of the same years. It is an outstanding collection. 

Obscurely prompted by 1066 And All That, I'd imagined Runnymede as a rather soggy place. My wife told me to pack a thermal T-shirt to wear during five long hours in the fresh air. If the Barons had met the King by the banks of the River Wear, it would have been the right advice. As it was, Thames-side has been positively balmy, and when the sun came out later in the morning, decidedly warm. Just right for this happy, colourful Carta-Fest.
I don't need to describe the event: you will know all about it from the media. (It wasn't possible to live-tweet as there was no more 3G to be had today as there was in 1215 - a security blackout or is coverage along the Thames corridor as patchy as it is along our Pennine rivers?). So here are a few personal reflections on the day.
1. The speeches were the centrepiece. They were concise and to the point. The Master of the Rolls underlined Magna Carta's historic role in politics, governance and the rule of law. The Prime Minister (who has form when it comes to being tested on his knowledge of MC) cited Nelson Mandela who, on trial and facing a lifetime in prison, quoted the Charter and the constitutional liberties England owed to it. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about his predecessor Stephen Langton and his key contribution to Magna Carta, and as an example of upholding its principles of justice, singled out Bishops of Durham for their defence of the miners. I especially liked that bit and nearly applauded. Princess Anne referred to it as a bulwark against the abuse of human rights. Even if you could have predicted that much of this would be said, it was right to say it on this symbolic day. And it was well said.
2. Children and young people were prominently involved. The warm-up events gave us a hugely enjoyable menu of singing, ballet and drama. The best moment was a colourful procession of flags carried by school children into the arena. The flags represented all the counties of the UK; they were designed by children through competitions held among schools in each county. I was especially pleased to see County Durham's because the Cathedral's own Chorister School won the competition. It was good to see the Cross of St Cuthbert in all its northernness, together with a pit wheel and a Northumbrian bastle, paraded on a southern field before this large and distinguished crowd.
3. I hadn't appreciated until today the huge significance Magna Carta has for the USA. The American Bar Association's Magna Carta Memorial is a prominent landmark at Runnymede. Today it was rededicated by the Princess Royal after its recent renovation. The President of the ABA and the US Attorney General spoke to good effect about the American Constitution, how 1215 was only the beginning of a long journey towards justice, how we must all deliver on the promises held out then. 'Magna Carta defines what we must do and who we must be if there is to be peace in our world.' (I suppose the whole of West Wing is a dramatic commentary on this - I couldn't stop it coming to mind as we stood for the Stars and Stripes. In the Deanery we have almost reached the end of our second time watching the whole of this brilliant series. But that's for another blog.)
4. The music was excellent, and performers rose to the challenge of playing and singing in the difficult acoustic environment of the open air. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave us a rumbustious programme of classics, including Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Beethoven's Wellington Symphony, a fun piece (not his greatest) I have only ever heard at open-air concerts. The European subtext of a German composer celebrating an English victory over a French self-proclaimed emperor was no doubt not lost on the audience (or on the PM who may even have chosen it for the occasion). The Temple Church Choir robed in scarlet sang a newly commissioned anthem by John Rutter and a passage from one of Handel's Coronation Anthems, 'Let justice and judgment, mercy and truth go before thy face'. It was just right for the occasion and beautifully performed: another highlight.

5. There was art in abundance, including a fine new piece by Hew Locke which was dedicated by the Duke of Cambridge. It's called The Jurors and consists of twelve empty chairs. They symbolise justice and the rule of law, and the idea is that visitors to Runnymede sit in them and thus become part of the good story of justice themselves. There is a noble simplicity in the way the chairs are executed and arranged; and as interactive sculpture, effective, proving very popular with today's crowd after the ceremony.
6. All this made for a memorable event. But I wonder if something was lacking. I felt there needed to be some big symbolic act to bring it to a climax and give ritual shape to it, some way in which we could unite in appropriating and making our own the high ideals that were spoken about and honoured today. For example, children could have processed a facsimile of the Charter on to the podium and presented it to the Queen and the Archbishop. Some sentences could have been read out, and the audience invited to respond in words pledging loyalty to its ideals. There could even have been a prayer of rededication. (Yes! Why not, when the English Church and Archbishop played a crucial part in the events of 1215?) There was one prayer and it was a beautifully framed one, but that formed part of the American Bar Association ceremony and wasn't read from the central podium. An archiepiscopal blessing on the nation in the presence of The Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England would have been especially apt. As so often, these public ceremonies are timid about acknowledging the central place of religion in our common life. I'm not saying the faith dimension was absent. today It was implicit in many parts of the celebration, especially the music (and not forgetting Cuthbert's cross so prominent on the Durham flag!). I'm simply wondering whether the event altogether did justice to the comprehensive religious world view of our British and American forebears to whom Magna Carta was a foundation document of faith. We should have more confidence than even in a society as diverse as ours, public ceremony need not fight shy of religion. 
7. The organisers of today deserve to be pleased with the success of this great event. Everything was done in an exemplary way. I want in particular to pay tribute to the officials, stewards, security staff and police on duty: their good humour and warmth made a big difference to the feel of this great event. We in the north tend to think we are better at generating a sense of welcome and friendliness than southerners. Today has made me think again....
How to sum it all up? I am sure everybody who was at today's sunny celebration in Runnymede will agree that it was a real privilege to be there. It has been inspiring to reflect on the emblematic significance of Magna Carta and why it matters to people across the world. I am sure it should matter rather more to us in England, and institutions like Durham Cathedral that are guardians of these almost sacred texts need to think hard about how we use them to work for us in our endeavour to promote the common good of all the human family. The Charter is not simply about heritage. It is a tool for mission and social justice. That is an important thing to have glimpsed today. 
As to being brought closer to the spirit of 1215, it's more difficult to say. If I felt it anywhere, it wasn't in the presence of royalty and the nation's leaders, nor in the big crowd, the music or the speeches. I felt it most when I was walking early this morning to the arena along the banks of the river that has borne witness to the centuries of history that have shaped our nation and brought us to today. The water meadows of Runnymede are still a beautiful, unspoilt landscape thanks to the National Trust. The day was calm and still, as if - corny thought this - the trees, the flowers, the water, the air were all meditating quietly on the momentous event that took place there eight hundred years ago. There was complete tranquillity. That may turn out to be - for me - today's enduring gift. I don't know yet. Time will tell. 

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