Europe


The Bishop of Clogher in Ireland published in the Daily Telegraph today an open letter to the Prime Minister. John McDowell’s diocese straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – post-Brexit the border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. This is the text of his letter which I post with his permission:

Dear Prime Minister,

Now that the campaigning has ended and the governing must begin I wanted to write to you about the matter of the Border on the island of Ireland, which is close to where I live. Indeed, the Diocese of Clogher, which I serve, includes all of County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland and County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my Diocese transcends the Border.

No doubt many others representing many people and interests will have communicated with you on this subject before. So I would first reassure you that I am writing as someone who has always recognised the almost impossible difficulties and stresses placed on those who have a vocation to public life, particularly politicians.

I cannot claim to represent a huge electorate or to have any specialist knowledge. But sometimes an individual should say things which might otherwise go unheard in the cacophony of other, better-known voices; the alternative would be to simply wither in the silence of exhaustion.

As Bishop of Clogher, I have a vocation to care for people on both sides of the Border and a responsibility to pray for both British and Irish Heads of State and their peoples, day by day. Although that is principally a spiritual job of work, it would be hypocritical of me to pray for something without actively working to achieve it. Besides, spiritual wellbeing needs a material basis on which to live.

So, although our priorities and the methods we use to achieve them may be different, I think it is fair to say that our goals overlap; nowhere more so than in the current difficulties surrounding Brexit and the Border, which (very worryingly) give every impression of escalating towards a crisis. For those of us old enough to have lived through longest civil conflict in post-War Europe, the very word “escalation” is resonant with overtones of lived horror and real tragedy. As such, it is reassuring that those in power on both sides have repeated their desire to find answers to the Brexit/Border conundrum problems that protect what has been achieved here since 1998.

What your Government chooses to do to that end will be inevitably one of historical magnitude.

Government’s role is to use the very substantial resources of the State to sift evidence, consider policy options and plan a way forward. In so doing it should take into account the needs of society as a whole, i.e. to seek the common good. In light of this, the worst thing a Government can be is irresponsible or careless. No Government should commit a country to a course of action in which the consequences were so opaque as to be incalculable. It would, therefore, be both logically and morally correct for a Prime Minister to give deep pause before allowing a no-deal Brexit.

But I principally wanted to write to you about the Border.

The Border and the problems which it poses for any form of Brexit are not only technical or technological issues.  Nor are they simply issues to do with trade or security matters. Expressed in the starkest terms, the Border is the background against which all political and much cultural life in Northern Ireland (and in a more limited way in the Republic of Ireland) is worked out. Some people like the Border and others do not, but positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, it is pivotal to how politicians and people here assess almost all policy alternatives.

For this reason alone, any big change which has an impact on the Border is unavoidably complicated and inevitably charged with emotional and symbolic significance.

After a period of relative obscurity, it now appears that everybody is fascinated by the Border. It is interesting, for a while, to be at the centre of the world’s attention. But on the whole I think many of us would rather have been left alone.

For a political border, it is very beautiful in places. That is largely because of the hundreds of small farms looked after by hundreds of sturdy farmers along its length. There isn’t much money in it for most of them, but if you ask them why they don’t move to somewhere less difficult to farm they say “You can’t roll up the land and take it with you”. The long term well-being of men and women like these, and their neighbours all along the border, requires and deserves a clearly spelt-out, sustainable agreement between both sides. This is so that they have not only that material basis necessary for civilised living but also hope for their children’s future. Neither peace nor prosperity are possible without hope.

I think it was the great English public figure and man of Letters Thomas Babbington Macauley who said of Ireland that “the molten lava of the past flows hot and dangerous under the thin crust of the present”.

The ground on which people build and grow in the Border region feels particularly fragile today. It is almost possible to feel the heat of the past burning the soles of our feet. So, please, in your consideration of the future of this place: tread carefully.  And with deep and genuine concern I would ask you to be very conscious of the legacy your Government will leave.

Rt Revd. John McDowell is bishop of Clogher

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/26/dear-prime-minister-please-tread-carefully-handling-irish-border/

26 July 2019

Last night we went out with friends to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of Günter Grass’s epic The Tin Drum. It was surprising. It was certainly a powerful experience and an imaginative adaptation of the story. It was a bit like Marlene Dietrich meets Kraftwerk meets Gary Numan – in a good sense.

This was timely as I had just got back from holiday a couple of hours before and had just finished Stephen Green’s excellent book Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. In it he traces not only the formative history of Europe’s most complex and powerful nation, but also explores the themes key to understanding Germany today, its tensions and corporate psyche. I have read a lot on this stuff, but this is by far the best and most accessible account of this remarkable country.

The three voices worth paying some attention to as Europe addresses challenge and change in the years ahead are: Stephen Green in this book and a couple of other small books he has written on Europe; Timothy Garton-Ash – anything he has written; Jeremy Cliffe who is now based in Berlin for the Economist and is the must-read on Twitter on all things German and Brexit. Not surprisingly, all three speak German.

I listened to the morning worship on BBC Radio 4 this morning through the filter of the theatre, the book and my thinking about Martin Luther. I presented the programme, produced by Rosie Dawson and recorded in Wittenberg a couple of weeks ago. Both Grass and Green wrestle with Luther’s legacy for German culture and political development.

Luther made a massive impact on the culture and political development of Europe. The story has not ended yet.

The excellent Bishop of Hannover, Ralf Meister, delivered a brief ‘greeting’ on behalf of the Evangelischer Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) and ecumenical guests at the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in York. The bishop is also the newly-appointed German co-chair of the Meissen Commission, so I look forward hugely to working with him (as the English co-chair) in the next few years. The text of his address, coming in the light of the decision by the UK to leave the European Union, follows:

 

It is a great honour to attend this General Synod of the Church of England and to convey to you today the cordial greetings of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

I bring to you the greetings of the Council of the EKD, by the chairman of the council Bishop Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm,

the greetings of the plenary church conference and the presidium of the Synod, personally from the chair of the presidium Mrs. Schwätzer.

When I give you my regards as the Bishop of Hannover, there is a common bond between us. Because King Georg I. was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Kingdom of Hanover).

You come together in turbulent times. I’m aware that the decision in Great Britain for the Brexit is a national democratic decision, but with due respect for that, it has an enormous impact on the international, especially the European Situation and for Germany as well.

Please allow me to make short remarks about the new fragile European situation and our responsibility as Christians.

First: I was irritated, that the main reaction in Germany about the Brexit was a discussion about the financial and economic consequences of this referendum. The European dream is a dream of humanity and justice and not the question whether the stock-exchange is placed in London or in Frankfurt or about the future of the single market. But most important: The idea of Europe is based on shared values and peace.

Recently we remembered the Battle of Somme in 1916.

When we look for some voices, which proclaim a European perspective rooted in Christian values, we find this voice in words and music from your nation: in the War Requiem from Benjamin Britten with the poetry from Wilfred Owen. Owen fought in the war zone of Somme and died in 1918: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. […] All a poet can do today is warn.” Owen spoke as a Christian. What a strong sign of hope and reconciliation it was, when the War Requiem was first performed in the cathedral of Coventry in 1962. It will be the Christian charge, to warn of a separated Europe – in all the tendencies for a new nationalism and the modern attraction of political populists. A Europe split in gated national communities will undermine a common period of social, economic, cultural and peaceful welfare in Europe.

But the duty for the churches in Europe is not only to warn, but to give our people the hope, that the liberation in God’s grace will be the condition for a profound understanding of freedom, justice and peace.

Second:

We in the EKD are on the way to celebrate the Jubilee of the Reformation in 2017. It will be the first jubilee in 500 years, which we celebrate in a deep ecumenical understanding with other denominations parallel to a fruitful interreligious dialog with Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. So we realise, that “the reformation is a world citizen”. It interconnects us in a strong line with Christians all over the world.

The Meissen-Agreement states: „We will take steps to closer fellowship in as many areas as possible, so that all our members together may advance on the way to full visible unity.“

This is an ecumenical sentence, first for us and our churches. This is a sentence of faith and of hope. But this is also a strong political proclamation for our worldwide responsibility as Christians; a responsibility to take the challenges of the modern, complex and anxious world as an invitation from God himself to work for his creation.

In this world, “right” answers are not easily found. But we have the task to witness our belief in God to practice tolerance and to engage in difficult dialogues.

Christianity has a history of interdenominational persecutions, discriminations, violence and war. We know, that it took centuries to come from “conflict to communion” and live in “reconciled difference”. May we owe our countries the story of the long way to the house of our neighbours? We owe our people the story of tolerance and acceptance, of respect and dialogue, of reconciliation and peace in the light of the gospel.

We need a strong common narration of Europe in which our Christian experiences are still decisive.

Christians are resilient and resistant people. We are strengthened in the hope from the creator of heaven and earth.

The liberating message of the gospel was in the midst of the reformation. We listen to that message in different contexts and exciting times, like these troubling days in Europe.

The reformation was a catalyst for a new understanding of the church’s role in society. In that tradition we stand. In England as well as in Germany, in the Anglican Church as well as in the Evangelical Church in Germany.

Let me end with a word from the protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his “Letters and Papers from Prison”:

“Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,

Not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
Carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.”

(Widerstand und Ergebung, DBW, Bd 8, S.571)

God bless your synod.

I am in York for the General Synod of the Church of England – a session that lasts from this afternoon until next Tuesday. The agenda was varied in order to allow for a debate on a motion proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the EU Referendum. The Synod was encouraged by the Archbishop to look forward, not back.

I stood throughout the substantive debate, but was not called to speak – a little odd and frustrating given that I lead on Europe for the bishops in the House of Lords and chair the Meissen Commission, whose new German co-chair (Landesbischof Ralf Meister of Hanover) had just addressed the Synod.

Much of the debate was good, some was predictable. What was obvious, however, was how few of the ills attributed to the decision by 17million people to vote to leave the EU actually have/had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. At some point this has to be named. If people wanted to express alienation for the political discourse or protest at the behaviour of Westminster, then the EU should not have been the target.

That said, the vote is a fact on the ground and we now need to get on with the consequences of the result.

Had I spoken in the debate I would have drawn attention back to a less introspective place. The European project had distinctively Christian origins and emerged from a Christian-driven post-war drive to create relationships that would prevent intra-European conflict in the future. Schumann did not dream up his vision from nowhere. So, the debate going forward has to do not only with economics, markets, jobs and currency values, but also with culture, education, hope and integration.

It is not insignificant that a group of German and British Christians exchanged visits as Europe “sleepwalked” (Christopher Clark) its way towards what was to be the First World War. As the world collapsed around them within a few years, the relationships continued. Enemies knew that they were friends because they were untitled by the cross and resurrection of Christ. In the run-up to what became the Second World War it was also relationships between Christians that held while the nationalisms screamed their allegiances. It wasn't just Bishop George Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who kept the fires of love burning amid the conflagration of an 'Enlightened' continent.

So, in looking forward to what might come next for the UK and its place in Europe (if not in the EU), we might just learn from such a brief look back. It is the relationships that matter. And they matter more now, perhaps, than they did three weeks ago.

Church of England dioceses often have strong partnerships with Anglican dioceses around the world – often in exotic or 'other' places. Quite right, too, and very important. Trying to get links with European dioceses has proved more difficult because there is an assumption that “they” don't need us and, anyway, we know them already. But, this is simply wrong. There has never been a greater need for us to build strong relationships and partnerships with European Christians and churches than there is today. It is the relationships that sustain when everything else collapses – and the future of Europe looks more fragile today than it did just a few weeks ago.

I would say this, wouldn't I? After all, I am a europhile. I speak several European languages. I have strong friendships across Europe. I co-chair a European ecumenical body (the Meissen Commission). But, at risk of repetition, I say:

  • Now is not the time to diminish our investment in European ecumenical work, but to grow it.
  • Now is the time to create, build and strengthen sustainable relationships with European churches and Christians.
  • Now is not the time to look just at what is happening in our own islands, but to look through the lens of those on the continental mainland.
  • Now is the time to ask what we can contribute to the future of Europe and not just what we can gain from it (or from leaving the EU).
  • Now is the time to do the step-by-step, hard work of building relationships and making reconciliation a reality – not just in the divided communities of the UK, but also across the continent.

 

So, the people of the UK have spoken. But, what they have said is unclear. Nevertheless, the outcome is more than clear. We must now shape the future and not simply waste our time complaining about it.

What is powerfully clear also is that we now have a rudderless government trying to forge a path it doesn't believe in towards a destiny it cannot – despite the rhetoric – control. We will need to watch carefully the consequences of our collective decision, recognising that not all consequences will be intended, convenient or controllable. There are dangers as the whole of Europe faces a radical reshaping, with some of the most powerfully motivated people having the most dubious and dangerous motivations. Fragmentation is possible.

No doubt, in the days, weeks and months ahead, there will plenty of “what if?” moments. But, those who voted to remain in the EU cannot simply sit sniping from the sidelines, suggesting that all consequences were predictable and that those who voted to leave the EU must take sole responsibility for what now follows. We are all responsible for taking responsibility and shaping what we want to become. Those of us who believed we should remain in the EU must not become victims.

Reconciliation is a word that is easy to speak and hard to bring about. It cannot be enforced and it cannot be regarded as cheap and easy. Today we have a bitterly divided country, with fear and resentment bubbling on the surface and feeding on the uncertainty. The churches can provide space for those on both sides of the divide to recover the humanity of the public discourse, to recognise and articulate a common vision for the common good, to incarnate the sort of solidarity we cannot yet imagine.

And we can pray: pray that, in the words of Paul to the Christians in Rome, all of us might be transformed by the renewing of our mind in order that we might together discern the good and perfect will of God for ourselves and his world.

The work begins now. We have no idea where it will lead.

But, then, we are no strangers to faith.

Breaking up is hard to do. So went the song. But, whereas that might apply to love and relationships, it clearly is less so when it comes to politics.

The EU referendum debate has so far been … er … pathetic – the trading of unsubstantiated prophetic claims on both sides, accompanied by ‘selective’ representations of European history and the pursuit of personal vendettas by people who seemed – on other matters, at least – to be on the same side.

But, one aspect has, to my mind, not been adequately explored. It is quick and easy to break down institutions and relationships, but long and difficult to build them up. In recent memory, just witness the collapse of the USSR and the ground it prepared for Vladimir Putin, resurgent nationalism rooted in hurt pride, and a fascism that has fed similar tendencies in Eastern Europe and beyond. The winter of the Arab Spring should teach us something.

In this respect, consideration must be given to how Brexit might well fuel the disturbing nationalist fires in other parts of Europe and how further fragmentation of the EU might lead to new political associations over which we will have no control and even less influence. Remaining in the EU must raise questions about how the resentments, racism and romanticisms of some member states can be resisted with the sort of moral clarity and courage that gave rise to the post-war European project in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago a former Archbishop of Canterbury compared Brexit to Noah leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land. (I kid you not: I was asked to comment on a draft.) Of course, where the case falls is that the exodus was followed by forty years – a generation of romanticists – in the desert and a good deal of violent ethnic cleansing thereafter. Promises of effortless and cost-free deliverance are usually fantasy, and those who do the promising know this very well.

So, whether one wishes to see the UK remain in the EU or leave it behind, promises of political or economic (to say nothing of diplomatic) nirvana should be placed on the ‘fantasy’ pile – or, as I prefer to think of it, the ‘lying’ pile. (As should the rhetoric that cites only the ‘costs’ to us of UK membership of the EU without asking once what we bring to the European consensus.)

This is pertinent because, as most of Europe looks on in bewilderment at the nature of our debate thus far, we are asking the British people to make a decision that will have both intended and unintended consequences for us. We simply cannot say whether Brexit will make travel and other conveniences less convenient – other EU countries might well help us to recall what membership granted by removing some of the conveniences we have rejected. We simply cannot pretend that the negotiations in which we will hope to engage will end up benefiting us in the way suggested – especially when we will be negotiating (among others) with those whom we have spent many words and gestures insulting and rejecting (either explicitly or implicitly) during this campaign.

The tragedy of the referendum campaign – to my mind, at least – is the appeal to purely national self-interest over against what we might bring to the common good. Democracy – claimed by some to be the primary victim of EU membership – means compromise in the interests of the common good, but only following debate and consensus. Do we really think democracy can be reduced to only being valid when everyone else agrees with us and we guarantee our own interests?

Clearly, remaining will bring challenges. Leaving will bring others. That is reality, and we can’t predict the future. But, we can weigh up the probabilities of each option and vote accordingly on 23 June.

Nevertheless, one thing that has struggled to get through this debate is that the easy conflation of the EU and Europe is less than helpful. The institution is not the same as the continent. The EU is a construct that can be reshaped and reimagined; the continent has seen a constantly changing shaping of cultures, nations and politico-economic allegiances. The question is: will remaining in the EU or leaving it be more likely to shape the continent for the better in the next century, or will it contribute to a disintegration and the unintended consequences this might bring?

After all, the history will only be written a century after the events – something of which we are acutely aware as we commemorate the catastrophe that turned into the First World War a hundred years ago.

(At least the Guardian – probably the only national newspaper that would entertain this – allowed an amusing dispute between Giles Fraser and Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on whether the Reformation should push us to stay or go. I don’t see a distinctive theological line on the question that is not selective to some extent; but, history too easily becomes a commodity which we trade in the interests of our own arguments or preferences. Yet, more of that sort of intelligent exchange would be welcome – and certainly more enlightening than the hyperbolic lobbing of political grenades from the trenches.)

 

The usual whinge. Running to stand still and haven't the head space to write much on this blog these days.

However, Adrian Hilton wrote on the excellent Reimagining Europe site earlier this week to urge bishops to remain neutral in the current EU referendum debate. Adrian is one of the few commentators and bloggers to keep us honest. So, I take his charge seriously.

The problem, of course, is that there is a word limit to posts on the Reimagining Europe blog. This means that argument has to be concise. This is a great virtue, but it also limits the ability to develop an argument. And this – as he states – applies to Adrian as much as it does to me in my response.

Anyway, as debate assumes the development of argument and thinking, see for yourself this week's exchange and then join in.

Adrian's post is here and my response here.

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