Just Give it Time
The legacy of Magna Carta (sealed 15 June 1215)
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore how a simple principle, such as Magna Carta, can, with patience and perseverance, have lasting relevance (SEAL theme: Social skills).
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers.
- Have available the video Magna Carta: An introduction by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, narrated by Terry Jones, for the British Library and the means to show it during the assembly (available at: www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction). It is 3.32 minutes long.
- Have available the song ‘Don't give up’ by Peter Gabriel, featuring Kate Bush, and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
Leader: Some 800 years ago, a very significant event occurred on an island in the middle of the River Thames. The effects of this event are still felt today. It was the sealing (kings didn’t ‘sign’ documents in those days) of a document that has become known as Magna Carta. This is how it happened.
Show the video Magna Carta: An introduction.
Leader: Magna Carta was actually a bit of a failure, if you come to think about it. It was supposed to be a peace treaty between King John and the barons, but, in fact, civil war soon broke out and the country was thrust into chaos.
Then there was the detail of the charter. It was mostly about medieval taxes, fish weirs on the River Thames and other issues related to that period in history. They were soon forgotten.
Finally, there was the bit that was the big deal: all free men were to have the right to justice and a fair trial. There could be no arbitrary use of power by a ruler. Notice the small print, however: this right was granted to ‘free men’, so it didn't apply to the majority of ordinary people. They continued to be abused.
So, what's so special about Magna Carta?
Over the centuries, Magna Carta was steadily revised. Irrelevant sections were eliminated and the application of the central principle has been widened, not just in Britain but also internationally.
Reader 1: In 1679, the Habeas Corpus Act was passed. This protects people in Britain from being detained without legal authority. It's still in force today.
Reader 2: In 1689, the first British Bill of Rights came into being. Human rights were recognized as being important for everyone.
Reader 1: In 1776, when America rebelled against British rule, the American Declaration of Independence was based on the principles of Magna Carta. America was to be the home of the free.
Reader 2: In 1948, Magna Carta provided the foundation for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which all international law is based.
Leader: Do you want instant success? When you make a decision, do you need to see the effects immediately? Are you disappointed if there's no noticeable difference at first? It might be a lifestyle change – dieting, stopping smoking, a fitness regime. It might be a relationship that you're trying to cultivate. Maybe you're tackling a new module in science and it's hard to understand or using a new medium in art and the results are rubbish.
I'm sure some of the barons involved in the drawing up of Magna Carta felt like that a few years after they'd persuaded King John to sign it. It appeared that the charter had initiated very few changes in society. It seemed as if their big project was a bit of a failure. They could never have known then the legacy that they would leave us by having created this document.
For Jesus, the big project was the kingdom of God. His mission in life was to introduce the time when God the father would bring his rule of peace, justice and love to all the people of the world. He put this into the famous prayer he taught:
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Jesus showed hints of what this might look and feel like by bringing healing, liberation and acceptance to the men, women and children of his time, but he knew it would take time.
Time for reflection
In our lives, we often find ourselves at the beginning of a project. I mentioned some examples earlier – personal projects, relationships, ambitions. Sometimes we can see an immediate impact, but often progress is slow. It's particularly so when we're trying to involve others in what we'd like to do.
Maybe it would be helpful to look at our experience in the light of Magna Carta and Jesus' mission. We initiate a project, we revise it as we hit obstructions and eliminate what's not really essential while holding on to what becomes most important. It may require patience and perseverance, it may use up a lot of energy, but what matters most is the end result. Even then, there may be developments to come, just like Magna Carta.
Thank you for the human rights we enjoy today that come from this historic document.
Remind us of the legacy that grew each time we're tempted to give up on a project of our own.
‘Don't give up’ by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.