From my early childhood, I have always been engaged in exploring what liberty means. I grew up fascinated by history for that reason and it is not for nothing that the pictures over my office desk resonate with some of the mightiest of English struggles for liberty: a copy of the Magna Carta, photographs and records of female suffragists, and, most poignantly of all, a facsimile of the Leveller Anthony Sedley's scrawled protest on the font of Burford Church (see picture to the right). Such epic battles, mixed in as they often were with religious identity and aspiration, both challenge and inspire. They are in parts a record of gruesome hurts but also witness to the Christ-like 'courage to be', to re-imagine, and to 'turn the world upside down' Imagine then my frequent puzzlement and dismay, when some people, in comfortable places, speak about religious liberty as merely the right to hold and publicise curious opinions and practices or to protect privilege. Of course I would not wish to deny others the first of those things. Yet liberty is so much more...
I am indeed frequently in awe at those who have gone before who have opened up freedom for us. Actually they themselves rarely if ever thought of themselves as giants, which is why they can often be role models for us. It is so sad however when their lives and contributions are lost, or deliberately re-framed for other interests. Diane Purkiss puts it well in her book The English Civil War: A People's History, challenging the English to reclaim that part of their own contested struggles for liberty:
The Civil War is perhaps the most important event in the our history, but for rather complex reasons many of the very intelligent readers who abound in these isles know little of it. The great battlefield sites of Edgehill, Marston Moor, and Naseby are difficult to find and poorly marked. The siege sites of Basing House and Donnington Castle are ruins dotted with picnickers rather than sacred memorials to heroic endeavours and ideas. We have no Fourth of July, no Bastille Day to commemorate our own heroic struggle to define and enact freedom, even though on it depended the ideas that were later to lead to those two other revolutions. Self-deprecation can go too far, and as a nation we are perhaps too good at it, so good that it becomes a species of forgetting.
Of course how and what we remember is also important. The 17th century in Britain and Ireland was such a dynamic age, giving rise to an outstanding as well as disturbing range of religious figures and features. Yet religious liberty was ambiguous on most sides. Nonetheless those of us who are the descendants of English speaking religion will do well not to forget. As the great German Reformer Martin Luther put it in a typical paradox, in his major reforming treatise The Freedom of a Christian: 'A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.' Rights and responsibilities are intimately involved in the development of vibrant, healthy spiritualities. We may not agree with all that Luther, or the other major reformers, or Catholic leaders, did in realising that freedom. However, like the 17th century pioneers of greater liberty, we need to recognise that freedom may begin in the home of the heart and soul but it is not intended to stay there, at least whilst false powers, injustice and oppression prevail.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.