Europe


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.

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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.

So, we are about to enter the most explicit exercise of collective faith and we have a few months to get used to the idea. The referendum on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union will take place on Thursday 23 June. Why 'faith'? Simply because even those who despise the concept of faith (preferring 'fact' – as if that was the antithesis of faith) will have to exercise a huge pile of it in deciding how to vote.

Staying in the EU will demand faith. We do not know how the Union will shape up in the future, given some of the strains inherent in it as an institution. We also don't know how future events or pressures will push for a re-shaping of the relationships that constitute it. Another financial crash will prove testing not only to the euro, but also to the union itself.

However, leaving the EU will also herald a pile of unknowns. We cannot be sure how our trade agreements will hold or how the EU will decide to handle Britain in the future. It seems bizarre, at the very least, that the 'leavers' seem convinced that leaving will bring only benefits to the UK whilst at the same time changing nothing in terms of relationships. Can you imagine if France related to the EU as Britian does and, ultimately, voted to leave? We would make life difficult for them at every turn, wouldn't we?

So, the campaign is about to kick off. I want to hear the arguments before deciding which way to vote on 23 June. My fear, however, is that arguments won't get heard. In a polarised British media 'Europe' is conflated into 'EU' and, in turn, the EU is associated purely with 'immigration' and negativity. This doesn't augur well for an intelligent debate leading to a properly understood outcome.

It is always a surprise that anyone believes any politician who promises anything during an election campaign. It is never a surprise that promises get compromised within days of the real world returning. I am not being cynical here: the world changes constantly, and promises made on one set of premises cannot always be guaranteed to be deliverable when the context changes – which, in this uncertain world, can happen very quickly. So, any election is an act of faith. And a wise electorate expresses its will on the basis of potential and probability, and on the character of the ones who, once in power, might have to adapt to a world they didn't predict or promise.

The referendum campaign should set out both the pros and cons of both staying in or leaving the EU. Emotional and associational manipulation should be minimised. I won't hold my breath.

I offer two starters for ten: (a) don't confuse Europe with the institutions of the EU; (b) we do not have to vote on a polar choice: pro-EU (stay in) or anti-EU (get out), but can offer a third way of wanting to stay in (recognising our place in Europe) while being strongly critical of the institution of the EU and working to see it change. Let's see how that looks in four months time.

In the meantime (because it only occurred to me yesterday to wonder), I would like to know (a) how much British ex-pats living in other EU countries get in benefits from those countries, (b) how they might be affected if rules for migrants living in Britain were imposed in those countries, too, and (c) how the first figure compares with what is paid out to EU immigrants here. Are such figures/comparisons published anywhere?

I think it unlikely that the Church of England will take a view on which way to vote as Christians will, in good conscience, vote differently depending on how they judge the benefits or otherwise of staying or leaving. However, voices rooted in more than economic pragmatism need to be heard and I trust individuals will represent those views, judgements and questions as the debate progresses towards a vote.

If the result turns out to be as close as it would appear at this stage, someone will have to pay attention to the aftermath and how we stick together when half the country is angry or disappointed – probably not only by the outcome, but by the conduct of the campaigns, too. I still hope that the Church's Reimagining Europe blog can offer a safer place for dialogue and debate than will be evident in the British media.

 

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