Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Two billion people live in relative freedom thanks to negotiations held in London’s Temple Church

I worked for nearly five years in Bush House, the former home of the BBC World Service, which is about seven minutes’ stroll from the Temple Church, but I never worked up sufficient interest to visit the place. Silly me. Today, after a visit to an art exhibition nearby, my wife persuaded me to take a look. Turns out it’s where the negotiations during which the substance of the Magna Carta were agreed between King John and the Barons.

Magna Carta placed limits on the power of the King, and therefore on the power of the state, and enshrined the principle of the Rule of Law rather than the Rule of Men. Of course, England has been exporting these dangerous concepts to other parts of the glove ever since.

As Winston Churchill wrote in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956):
The underlying idea of the sovereignty of the law, long existent in feudal custom, was raised by it into a doctrine for the national state. And when in subsequent ages the State, swollen with its own authority, has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights and liberties of the subject, it is to this doctrine (Magna Carta) that appeal has again and again been made, and never as yet, without success.
In the week which saw the death of one of England's greatest proponents of freedom, to
be able to wander around the building where the principles of liberty were hammered out made me feel privileged to have lived for much of my life in a country that has so vigorously championed the concept of personal freedom within the law. It also made me  sad to reflect that Parliament has done so much in recent years to curtail that freedom - by kow-towing to a bunch of socialistic foreigners who wouldn’t recognise true liberty if it punched them in the nose; by passing Hate Crime legislation which places outrageous restrictions on what we’re allowed to say and think, and which places certain victim groups on a privileged pedestal; and, of course, the freedom of the press is now up for grabs, essentially because a few entertainers and politicians don’t want us to know what grubby things they get up to in private.

An enforced visit to Temple Church might remind our legislators that their silly, modish determination to discriminate in favour of certain sections of society by curbing the freedom of the unprivileged majority represents a betrayal of 800 years of British history. But I doubt if it would have much effect – after all, it takes political leaders of vision and courage to trust ordinary people to run their own affairs, and our current crop give every indication of being myopic cowards.

The Temple Church, which was first consecrated in 1185 by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jersualem, was built by the Knights Templar as their London HQ. It has a striking circular nave – the Round Church -
built to a design based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Like most buildings of its age in London, it’s been knocked about a bit over the years. Despite escaping the Great Fire of London, Wren classicised it, only for the Victorians to re-Gothicise it in 1841.

German incendiary bombs did a lot of damage in 1941, but it's all been put back together again, including Wren’s renovations, which were discovered in storage. As with another great historical church – St Paul’s – it doesn’t feel particularly religious: perhaps the palpable presence of so much history muffles the divine aspect. But there’s tons to see, including some splendid effigies and many expressive carved heads, and the Round Church itself is quite glorious. The acoustics are apparently superb, and I really must attend a concert there.

There's a decent video about the church here.

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