Occasionally I have a palpable sense of the communion of saints. This week it began in a second-hand bookshop in Sydney's Newtown. Looking up, a book seemed to spring out at me like a blessed shaft of light opening from above. It bore the author's name of Alan Webster, a beloved but sadly departed mentor on my life's journey. Reaching for Reality was a book written late in Alan's life and one of which I was not aware. Sketching people and events which have broken free from deadening routine and oppression, it speaks of vision and change, of the critical need and cost of risk-taking, and of the best of the Anglican spirit Alan embodied - warm, inviting, large hearted, open, culturally and intellectually intelligent, responsive and creative, down-to-earth, intimately concerned with every person and aspect of life, grounded in Julian of Norwich-like 'prayer in struggle', and discovering the transcendent in our earthly dust. As I and my immediate family make many transitions at this time, it is as though Alan again speaks directly to me - be encouraged; don't be afraid to be, bring and suffer change; the mystery of God calls us on...
The other evening I had the pleasure of being part of this year's inter-denominational service of commissioning of Religious Instruction (RI) teachers for Toowoomba. It was a typically up-beat and prayerful occasion, with fine inputs from local school principals and Stephen Urmston, the new Anglican Children & Family worker at St Barts Toowoomba. I was moved again by the genuine care and loving commitment of those involved in offering RI to children in our local state schools and do believe that, in some ways, they enhance both the spiritual and wider relational life of the children and adults they share and meet with. However...
For several years I have had a copy of Magna Carta on my living room wall. An odd thing this may seem to many. It seemed a waste however to have it rolled up in a cylinder and it is a reminder to me, both of my personal history and origins and also of the continuing challenges to seek and nurture liberty. For I grew up, for most of my childhood and youth, near Lincoln, whose Cathedral owns one of the originals from 2015, now located in a permanent exhibition in Lincoln Castle. I also treasure a visit a few years ago to Runnymede, the site of the Magna Carta agreement, close by to where my sister currently lives. Above all, Magna Carta touches on so many aspects both of my historical interests and political concerns. In this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, it was therefore wonderful yesterday to be able to visit the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition in the British Library.
What most, pleasantly, surprised me in the exhibition were the series of historical documents, books and other artefacts from across the centuries. These were great to see, as well as refreshment to the European part of my soul which, much as I love Australia, sometimes struggles with the lack of appreciation down under of the highly diverse layers of history. Perhaps Europeans can sometimes themselves be trapped in such layers, and ignore the much more than human immensities of life, and such gifts as those of the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth, found in Australia. Yet, for me at least, to delve back into my own inheritance of history is to feel a renewed sense of intimate connection, wonder and empowerment.
The Magna Carta exhibition, as its subtitle suggests, seeks to place Magna Carta in the great traditions - I would say always uncertain struggles - of law and liberty, and their legacy, particularly in Anglo-Saxon shaped countries. Lines of influence are drawn across time: including to English resistance to 17th century tyranny, 18th and 19th century radicalism, American affirmations of liberties, and 20th century declarations of rights (including by the UN and Nelson Mandela). Rather than being a legal instrument of tight principles, it is perhaps best viewed as a continually revered tool against oppression and a potent inspiration to 'maintain the rage'. Unlike other approaches, such as French and Russian, this Anglo-Saxon pathway to liberty looks not so much to radical logic or abstract ideals as to the precedents and pragmatic practices of the past, albeit often mythopoeic visions and creations out of the contexts of later times.
Only three articles of Magna Carta are still UK statutes but it still has the power to shape our past and future. One remaining article is the first in Magna Carta: affirming the liberty of the English Church in the face of monarchical (or, by implication, other) domination. This reflects the work of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a key force for reconciliation and (limited) justice in 1215. Significantly however, the then Pope disagreed, dismissing Magna Carta to the dustbin of history in his papal bull which followed. Ironically Sir Thomas More did not agree later, appealing to Magna Carta against king and for the papacy. Perhaps Christian leaders, in our own age, would do well to renew that spirit of Magna Carta, whilst seeing its insistence on liberty as something not for a special few but for all, whoever and whatever we are. The barons, like the then king and Pope, of 1215 would have been horrified to see their ideas of liberty so extended. Blind or forgetful to the inspirations and horrors of history though we may often be, we 21st century people really do not have the luxury.
When I was younger, I spent much time in the delightful cathedral city of Lincoln, close to where I was raised. That city's great symbol is the Lincoln Imp, found today in its majestic cathedral's Angel Choir and the emblem of my, all too often wayward, childhood football team. About the Imp there are many stories. At the legend's heart however is the transformation of evil into good and the coming together of dynamic playfulness and ordered truth and beauty. Playfulness can become destructive mischief and ordered truth and beauty can become confining. Yet, when entwined in grace they are hallowed and hallowing. Maybe that is part of what John Bunyan meant in my favourite hymn. For life is not about being a hobgoblin or too pious. To be a pilgrim is to become a blessed imp, simul justus et peccator. Just as the Lincoln Imp is transformed at the top of Steep Hill, so may our wayward 'daimonic' energies be transfigured on the holy mountains of our life journeys.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.