The myth of the Magna Carta is more effective than its historical reality. In other words, it is widely assumed that all sorts of principles have been established in constitutions and law in direct succession to it, but actually its influence as an icon of liberty is much stronger than the tiny bits of historical truth behind this assumption. Where a sense of justice is strong (and in these places Magna Carta is often quoted or simply referred to) bad or inadequate constitution or law cannot stamp it out. Where a sense of justice is weak then no system of constitution or law (even one which writes in principles which genuinely echo some parts of Magna Carta) can properly secure it.
This was the most interesting thought in a lecture for the College of Canons at Lincoln Cathedral yesterday. It arose out of the experience of those who have been trying to use the Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta not only as a tourist attraction but also as a tool for opening up discussion about rights and society. The lecture strayed a long way around the nature of religious freedom, seemed to depend more than can be justified on a minority stream of liberal Islamic study, and used the word ‘iconic’ more often than I could really cope with, but this is where it ended up.
A fellow Canon drew a parallel with the Precentor’s sermon we had heard earlier: the Christ who was at home in no particular place can thus be ‘relevant’ in every place. However, noone raised the related question about how far ‘the myth of God incarnate’ depends on historical reality to have power. The Bishop of Lincoln did raise the question about whether St Hugh’s life and politics might have influenced the charter issued fifteen years after his death, and I suspect that this is less whimsical than he or the lecturer allowed.
Meanwhile, the Lincoln Co-op has launched a £9.99 Cathedral Christmas pack with a book of photographs, a bag and an application form for a free annual pass. The book was created by the simple expedient of asking the public to submit pictures, and the results are hugely attractive. I sent in two: the one at the head of this piece they did not use, but the one of the roof drainage channel which I posted in this blog on 21st June does appear.