Our recent holiday round the south of England was full of words. From The Merchant of Venice in Stratford to the Magna Carta at Salisbury, I was reminded just how important words are for our pleasure and for our freedoms. At a time when writing anything cost a small fortune the tiny and thinly spaced words of the Great Charter of 1215 reminded me how cheaply we view the production of text today. Words fly through the internet at an ever growing rate, enabling opinions to be shared across continents in just a few seconds. Compared with the time of King John, when a small number of people could read and write, our own era is swamped with communication. Perhaps talk really is cheap now, and matching actions to words matters more than ever.
The Magana Carta exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral is linked to a lot of work around human rights. Building on the Cathedral’s legacy as a home to one of the four surviving charters the community which worships there does much to champion issues of justice. It’s hardly surprising that this was the first Cathedral to appoint a woman priest as Dean with the arrival of June Osborne in 2004. It is a place which looks outward and looks forward.
Last year there was a debate in the Church of England’s General Synod about the importance of marking the Church’s role in the creation of the Magna Carta. Keith Malcouronne, who represents the Runnymede area on Synod, suggested that the anniversary be used to: “highlight the Church’s pivotal role in reconciliation across society and securing some very fundamental human rights. We should look around us today and into the future as we live out that vocation – serving the common good, defending the weak and powerless, and seeking freedom for those facing modern-day exploitation and deprivation.”
A key theme in The Merchant of Venice is to remind us that human difference is only skin deep. We all bleed. The dignity denied to Shylock is a familiar story, no less alive today than either 500 or 800 years ago. It seems to be an enduring aspect of the humanity that the privileged will always need someone to despise as well as the comfort of others to tell them they’re right to do it. The current debate about refugees in Calais cannot be separated from the legacy of the Magna Carta. The local difficulties England experienced in 1215 took place at a time when travel from one end of the Kingdom to another would have taken much longer than it takes to get to Australia today. We really do live in a global village: ignorance of the suffering of others cannot be our defence.
800 years ago a step was taken to narrow the gap between the King and his subjects. No longer could a King simply act as he wished. Some level of consent from the people was required. Perhaps today the crisis of immigration arises from another yawning gap, the disparity between rich and poor around the world. Like King John we can kid ourselves that we live in a different world, privileged and remote yet somehow a situation ordained and inevitable. Perhaps, like him, we’ll also have a day of reckoning when the majority call the minority to account. History, as they say, has a habit of repeating itself