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Monday, 15 June 2015

Discover & explore: Faith

We had a very positive beginning to the 'Discover & explore' service series at St Stephen Walbrook. Among the comments made by those present were these:
  • 'Magnificent choir & organ'
  • 'Both the songs and the reflection were excellent' 
  • 'Beautiful music; the readings were long and meaty! The whole liturgy was good'
  • 'St Martin's Choral Scholars – wonderful tone & expressions'
Here is my reflection on the theme of 'Faith' from today's service:

On 15 June 1215 at Runnymede King John agreed to have Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter,’ sealed. This event has later become recognised as one of the most important events in English history as it marked the road to individual freedom, parliamentary democracy and to the supremacy of law.

To mark this event, today, at Runnymede, there has been a national Magna Carta Foundation of Liberty ceremony, organised by the National Trust and Surrey County Council, and attended by 4,500 invited guests and VIPs from a cross-section of the community and around the world.

The City of London is the only place to be named in Magna Carta, in a clause guaranteeing "the City of London shall have all its ancient liberties by land as well as by water." It also played a fundamentally important role in the events leading to Magna Carta: Temple, in the west of the City, was where a posse of barons first confronted King John to demand a charter. The City was also later granted the right to appoint a Mayor (later known as the Lord Mayor), part of whose duties was to ensure the provisions of Magna Carta were carried out. As part of the 800th Anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, the 1297 Magna Carta is currently displayed in the City of London’s Heritage Gallery.

Magna Carta starts as a religious document, concerned with the “health of the soul” of the King, and with the “honour of God,” and with the “exaltation of the Holy Church”. Dr Mike West notes that “Magna Carta established the freedom of the English church from state interference and this has grown to enshrine the rights of each individual to enjoy religious freedom”.

Magna Carta has led to Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes:

  • the freedom to change religion or belief;
  • the freedom to exercise religion or belief publicly or privately, alone or with others;
  • the freedom to exercise religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance; and
  • the right to have no religion (e.g. to be atheist or agnostic) or to have non-religious beliefs protected (e.g. philosophical beliefs such as pacifism or veganism).

The process which took us from the Magna Carta establishing the freedom of the English church from state interference to the rights which we all have to enjoy religious and non-religious freedom ran through the period explored by paintings in the recent re-hanging of the Guildhall Art Gallery’s Victorian Collection. The mid-19th century, as is noted in the Gallery’s description of the theme of ‘Faith’, saw a “crisis of faith” brought about by new scientific developments, such as geological discoveries and Darwin’s evolutionary theory, although the majority of society continued to consider personal spirituality as a key component of life.

The debates which began in that period, and which never simply involved the binary oppositions of faith and science that feature in the usual popular commentaries on that period, continue into the present. These lead us firstly to value the freedom we have to hold either religious or non-religious beliefs. This comes with the recognition, identified primarily by Michael Polanyi, that all human knowledge, including that of science, is ultimately faith-based. This is so, because all knowledge relies on personal commitments which motivate our highest achievements and mean that we believe more than we can prove and know more than we can say. As Hebrews 11 expresses it, ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ Secondly, for those who do hold religious beliefs, they lead us to value the place of doubt and debate in faith. The latter is well expressed by the statement at St Martin-in-the-Fields that the church exists to honour God by being an open and inclusive church that enables people to question and discover for themselves the significance of Jesus Christ.

As these understandings of faith and the freedom to believe are not universally applied, Dr Mike West, in exploring the legacy of Magna Carta, writes that, “Today it challenges faith communities to examine the part they might play in the development of a liberal democracy and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem in international relations.”


John Stainer - God So Loved The World.

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