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Journey toward freedom and love

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Last year we wrote -

We often hear sincere people say they are against organized religion. They say this strongly, and refer angrily to a dark and dreadful church that persecuted scientists and oppressed women and did not oppose slavery, and left children to hunger while dressing its priests in cloth of gold.

We cannot say much about the church elsewhere, but in Britain the church did things that did not square with this terrible description.

The church included Anselm, who with his fellow brothers and priests ended slavery in England in 1102 at the Council of Westminster. It included men of prayer and goodwill who two years earlier had forced Henry I to sign the Charter of Liberties and affirm that no one, not even the king, was above the law. The church saw the genius of the poor child who was Robert Grosseteste, and educated him and sustained his exploration into the mathematical principles behind God’s creation. The church supported the experiments of Roger Bacon and the theories of William of Ockham, and when a new king tried to trample on justice, the church in the figures of archbishop and bishops rose up against him and forced him to agree that "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice."

This church remembered how Jesus had been held without charge, presumed guilty and sentenced without trial, and insisted on our rights to habeas corpus – to be charged or set free – to presumption of innocence and to trial by jury. It was probably serendipity that the jury had twelve jurors, exactly the number of Jesus’ disciples.

The church was a community which meant it included people - some of them priests or monastics and most of them lay people. Robert Grosseteste’s friend, Simon de Montfort, who established the first Parliament and willingly died to defend it was a lay member of the church.


“You know that the leaders of nations dominate their people and exercise tyrannical rule over them,” Jesus said. “That's how it is in the world. But that isn't how it must be with you. Whoever would be great among you, let that person serve you; and whoever would be your leader, let that person minister to your needs." (Mark 10:42-44)

Dunstan was a member of the church who believed passionately in a servant king and the Judeo-Christian idea of a covenant between people and ruler. Church members rid Britain of unjust kings, including William II, Richard II, Richard III, Charles I, and James I.

Of course there were people in the church who did not want those kings to go. Nevertheless church people guided by Christian principles stood for justice and representative government and freedom. Partly this was because British Christians believed that God had given them freedom. Not all Christians believe this, but British Christians who made momentous advances in protecting individual freedom did.

Jesus was extremely practical - it is one of his overlooked virtues - and his parables accept property rights that are clearly understood and protected under the law. For one thing he depends on men and women who are growing wheat and grapes and raising sheep on their land to feed him and his disciples and the poor. If they gave away everything they owned, or if the government took it all, they would have nothing much to give.

Jesus does not advocate government solutions. He asks us to love and give. Following in his footsteps, the community of Christians in Britain that I have been describing were passionate about property rights as a shield against tyranny, and equally passionate about helping others by founding charities and friendly societies.

By the 18th century this community of churches will understand that to follow Jesus the enslavement of black people has to end. These churches will finally affirm that women have the right to vote. Brits in New Zealand have the honour of being first in the world to establish in law the equality of men and women (unless, as some do, we give that honour to the men of the Isle of Man).

We can complain about how long it took them, as long as we forget how long it takes us to right a wrong.

Anyone trying to paint a complete as opposed to an incomplete picture of the church in Britain would be remiss if he omitted mentioning that the church established and sustained thousands of grammar schools, hospitals and hospices, Oxford and Cambridge universities, common law and parliamentary democracy.

For more about them, see Liberty! The Timeline.

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