Runnymede and Freedom

It stands overlooking the Thames, across an exceptionally glorious view of a beautiful part of England. White and austere, it has the solemn feeling of a temple, and you instinctively — and correctly — lower your voice as you draw near.

This is Runnymede. The name echoes at once in the mind of anyone with a care for English history — for on Runnymede Island, King John signed Magna Carta, and rights and duties, freedoms and obligations were set out for monarch and church, for barons and Parliament. But our first destination was not down by the river, but higher up, where a white monument soars beyond the trees and tops the crest of the hill.

We were there on a special visit, one that was several decades overdue. I had been here before, as a child, when the monument was first erected and opened to the public. Many times over the years I had told myself I would return, but it had never happened.  Now, suddenly, and with a sense of fulfilling a duty long, long left undone, I was here with my husband.

This white building, you see, is part of our family history. Here, set among many names, is a name that I have known all my life, remembered at Masses, mentioned on Remembrance Day, spoken of always with honor. We had begun by just walking slowly through the cool white corridors, open to the green lawns, and lined with double-columns of names. Name after name . . .

We were looking for the name of my uncle John, my mother’s oldest brother. This is the Royal Air Force Memorial. Uncle John doesn’t have a grave — he was shot down somewhere over the North Sea. This memorial is his memorial, as it is for so many other young men, so many other uncles.

And here was his name. We stood in silence and looked at it, said a prayer.

All my life, I have known his picture as it stood on the shelf in my mother’s room: the classic World War II photograph, a rather fine-looking young man in Royal Air Force uniform, slim face, untroubled straightforward gaze, slight smile. “He was my adored older brother,” my mother would say. “We all looked up to him. He was marvelous.” On Remembrance Day, she told me, my poppy was not just for anyone — it was for Uncle John. “Remember.”

After the memorial, we headed down to the riverside — Magna Carta island, a real, unspoiled, English place. You can get an old-fashioned tea in a proper, unpretentious teashop, and there are families picnicking, and children running about.

And of course there are copies of Magna Carta for sale; we bought one and looked at it. It’s long and ponderous, but it has some clear messages, the first of which is forthright and unambiguous: “That the English Church may be free.”

Freedom. Easy word to say, and too often on the lips of my generation, we who were offered “pop, pot, and the pill” as the summit of freedom.  But we knew that these were false things. In reality, a balance between freedom and responsibility, an understanding of what it means to live by the rule of law, a grasp of what God and Church and duty and civilization are about . . . well, all that went into the Britain that had been handed down to us, battered but intact, after the sacrifices of World War II.

A mixed legacy: No one who studies our country’s long history should be in any doubt that we’ve had our share of tyrants and perpetrators of injustice, cruel monarchs and inept rulers, corrupt churchmen and politicians, as well as our heroes and saints. But the country that went to war in 1939, that met its finest hour in 1940, that struggled on for five long years, knew what it was doing and knew what freedom meant.

Fast-forward suddenly to the Britain of the 21st century. New laws insist that the Church cooperate fully with promoting the agenda of a militant homosexual lobby. The Church is not free to run its own adoption societies, unless it accepts adoption by homosexual couples. Under the proposed “Equality” law, the Church could face legal penalties if it refuses to hire teachers or youth leaders who openly oppose Church teachings on homosexuality. A new education law mandates sex education, and will be applied to Catholic schools.

What sort of Britain did Uncle John think he was fighting to preserve and hand down? What did he believe about giving children to be adopted by homosexual couples? Would he have thought it worth getting into an airplane and risking death in order that sex education be mandated for five-year olds? Did he think it important that the Church be blocked from having freedom to present its moral teachings? What would his opinion be about a Church school being forced to employ someone who openly promoted the acceptability of homosexual practices?

I don’t know. He is dead and can’t tell me. His name is engraved on a panel at Runnymede, and his photograph is on the shelf of an elderly lady in a London suburb. As it happens, she’s a fairly forthright elderly lady; she knew her brother well, and she knew — and knows — the values that she and all her brothers were given as they grew up, the faith that sustained them, the moral principles on which they were based. These were not small or narrow ideas, nor trivial ones. They were large and noble and important, centering on the truths taught by the Church down the centuries. They were rooted in the knowledge that families and nations are based on a grasp of reality: that we are male and female, that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and that this is how a family is formed. Authentic freedom is not about slogans but is rooted in truth, defended by people who have a grasp on reality and an ability to see right from wrong, truth from falsehood.

As a Catholic, I am conscious of a vast history stretching back 2,000 years and beyond, to the Old Testament and the beginning of all things with God. As a woman living in Britain in the 21st century, I am conscious that the whole of my own country’s recorded history is bound up with that of the Church and the moral principles set out in the Decalogue and nourished by the Scriptures.

This is no small heritage, and it is consecrated by the sacrifices of men who were prepared to die for the country they loved. They handed it on to me as a precious gift, at a massive price. When speaking up in defense of the Church’s right to uphold the norms of marriage, family, and human relationships, I’m not doing so in a void. I’m doing so from Runnymede, with the words of Magna Carta behind me, and a name carved with honor on a white panel standing like a sentinel on guard over it. Remember.

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Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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