Church Played Major Role in Writing of Magna Carta

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
18 Jun 2015

800 years ago the Magna Carta was signed and became the basis of common law in England, Australia and the US

On the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the Church's central role in creating the historic charter that remains the basis of English, American and Australian constitutional and common law is being recognised.

Not only did the Charter protect against the wrongful arrest or imprisonment of "free men," guarantee access to swift justice, limit on the amount of taxes paid to the Crown, guarantee freedom of religion, ensure the rights of the Church were protected but demanded the Church be free from interference by the Crown.

"The principle of separation of church and state can be found in the first clause of the Magna Carta which was signed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215," says Father Mark Podesta, Ecclesiastical Judge and Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney Tribunal.

Although the principle is enshrined in the Constitution of Australia it is misunderstood and misinterpreted by most people.

Fr Mark Podesta, Ecclesial Judge and Director of the Sydney Tribunal

"Today most people believe the clause relating to the Separation of Church and State means the Church should not interfere with state powers or legislation by the state. In other words the Church must not be interfere in politics or political and policy decisions. But this is the reverse of the true meaning of the Clause which was included in the Magna Carta to prevent interference in the Church by the Crown," explains Fr Mark.

Back in the 13th Century when there was the only one Church, which was the Church of Rome, England's drunken and quixotic King John following the example of his Royal forbears, had no compunction about using the Church as a political weapon and arbitrarily seizing the Church's lands and properties when it suited him.

This is the reason Separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Magna Carta.

"The Separation of Church and State is written into the Australian Constitution as well as Constitutions in many other countries including the USA, and means that the State cannot make any law prohibiting the free exercise of any religion," Fr Mark says.

The Queen and British policial leaders attended celebrations at Runnymede to mark 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was largely drawn up by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and according to many legal as well as theological scholars, it was the Christian intellectual tradition and teachings that led to the lasting ideas within the Magna Carta.

Not least of these are protection of liberties such as the freedom to practice a religion, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

"Freedom of religion is enshrined in Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia which prevents the Federal Parliament from not only making laws to prohibit the free exercise of any religion but ensures that no religious test is required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth," Fr Mark says.

While many of the 64 Clauses of the original Magna Carta of 1215 have become outdated, been changed and altered as times have changed and altered, the legacy and influence of this remarkable 800-year-old document continues to resonate, particularly when it comes to human rights and protections under the law.

St James Church where the ecumenical service to commemorate 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta

Britain commemorated the signing of the Magna Carta on Monday this week attended by the Queen who arrived at Runnymede on the Royal barge accompanied by a flotilla of boats. A copy of the Magna Carta was also sealed and placed in a specially created commemorative monument.

Here in Australia there were also celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which many believe signalled the birth of modern democracy.

Organised by the Magna Carta Committee of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia and the St Thomas More Society commemorative celebrations began on Sunday, 14 June with an ecumenical service at Sydney's historic St James Church on King Street.

Fr Mark represented the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP who is currently in Rome and gave two of the prayer readings. The Anglican Bishop for South Sydney, the Right Rev Robert Forsyth presided at the service which was attended by members of the St Thomas More Society and many from Sydney's legal fraternity. Also there were a wide representation from Sydney's Christian churches including representatives from the Presbyterian and Uniting Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Magna Carta was signed 800 years ago and enshrines freedom of religion and other liberties still in force today

"It was a beautiful service filled with wonderful music and prayers. To commemorate the Magna Carta and show it is not just a mythical piece of payer, but its influence throughout history on culture and society, the service was organised to facilitate a dialogue between Church and State," Fr Mark says. "The clergy, such as myself, spoke and said prayers from a lectern facing the congregation while members of the judiciary and city leaders spoke from a lectern that faced the clergy."

The occasional address, "Magna Carta 800 Years Young," was delivered by Nicholas Cowdery, AM QC and former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions.

Throughout the week there will be specials on television examining the impact of the Magna Carta in today's world as well as features on ABC radio.

Until recently most school children knew little about the Magna Carta but thanks to efforts by Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne the ancient document as the foundation of freedom and democracy is now a compulsory part of the Australian school curriculum.