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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Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.

It is clear that the government is working assiduously to create some shape out of the decision in the June referendum to leave the European Union. It is also clear that a huge number of questions that should have been tested out prior to the referendum itself have not been. Now it is a case of catch-up – a not inconsiderable task. It also demands that some proactive shape is made of the process, and not just a complaint about about the outcome. I remain pessimistic about many aspects of Brexit, but the debate must be engaged with.

So, following a question in the House of Lords this afternoon about the economic impact of the UK departure – which in turn was followed by a debate on the Children and Social Work Bill – there was a short debate on the implications of Brexit for peace and stability in Europe and beyond. My speech follows:

To ask HM Government what assessment they have made of the potential effect on peace and stability in Europe and around the world of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

My Lords, recognising that this debate and that to come on Thursday belong together, I offer this statement by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann in a book I have just finished reading: “A free society is not an accumulation of independent individuals; it is a community of persons in solidarity.”

I quote this because the same might equally be applied to nations. It bears repetition that the language and discourse of the referendum – shamelessly fuelled by misrepresentations and misleading promises, now apparently acceptable in a so-called 'post-factual' world – paid little or no attention to the needs or securities of our international neighbours, but focused purely on the national interests of Britain. As if we can live in isolation or that we can be secure without ensuring the security of our neighbours. I invoke the poet John Donne: in a globalised world Britain cannot simply see itself as an island. Although the referendum campaign was dominated by immigration and the domestic economy (with wild promises that should always have used the language of “might” rather than “will”), questions about foreign relations and the security implications of a decision to remain or leave the EU were too often dismissed as if an impertinent intervention by an embarrassing relation.

So, the decision to leave the EU now raises questions that should have been identified and fleshed out before the referendum – questions that assume our place as a nation interdependent on a community of nations. If Europe has been focused for a generation or more on integration, it is surely now coloured by a hint of disintegration. But, to return to the questions…

For example: Brexit will be hugely demanding of energy and resources. What will be the impact of this on other areas of government? We hear bold promises that Britain will not retreat in on itself; but if revenues are reduced, costs increase, the pound continues to fall, and the focus of resource is on Brexit, what will happen to work with the UN Security Council, NATO, G7, G20 and the Commonwealth? Furthermore, is it not inconceivable that this diversion of energy, focus and resource might just create the space for mischief-making by those who are not our best friends?

Peace and stability cannot be achieved by an approach that is rooted in us simply looking to our own best interests. As we see around the world, particularly in the Middle East, security, peace and stability must be mutual. To seek the security of neighbours is costly.

But, I have further questions. The last Strategic Defence and Security Review was published in November 2015. Yet, the brave new post-Brexit world will look different from the one assumed a year ago. It is likely, for instance, that increased and enhanced EU Defence cooperation – potentially intensified outside of NATO – will impact both on the UK and NATO. In turn, if we invest more in NATO, this will have an impact on our relationship with and towards Russia, and this will impact on our response to threats to Poland and the Baltic states. Or, to put it differently, how might greater EU Defence cooperation impact on the government's stated SDSR ambition to “intensify our security and defence relationship with Germany” and to “further strengthen the U.K.-France defence and security relationship”?

It would beggar belief that such questions have not been thought through in detail before now. Or, to put it less charitably, where were the experts when we needed them?

To change tack a little, we recognise that the UK is one of the biggest contributors to the European Development Fund, currently contributing £409 million (which makes 14.8% of total contributions to the Fund). Has the Government yet assessed the impact of Brexit on the EDF? Will Brexit lead to a narrower disbursement of UK aid to a narrower geographical reach than currently channeled through the EDF? And can the Government give an assurance that the UK's Overseas Development Aid will continue to be spent on genuine ODA purposes and not be used as sweeteners for trade deals – given that trade deals have been represented as the highest social good – a questionable anthropological priority at best?

My Lords, peace and security are not merely notional aspirations, but demand a broader and deeper vision of what a human society actually is, and for whom it is to be ordered. Peace and stability cannot be empty or utilitarian words to be thrown around carelessly in a post-factual world. They demand the prioritising of mutual international relationships and detailed costings – not merely financial or economic, but human, social and structural.

I am writing this in Berlin while attending an international inter-parliamentary conference on freedom of religion and belief. Parliamentarians have come from all over the world and from every continent bar Australia. And the question put to me by almost everyone I meet? Brexit. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the UK has been either mad or stupid.

My own position is that of the realist: the decision has been made (in a non-binding referendum that now puts a wider question over the nature of parliamentary democracy), the boat has sailed (with some enormous holes in it), and, even if we wanted to go back on the referendum result, our position is now seen as having moved in the eyes of our interlocutors in Europe and beyond. So, we now have to get on with it and shape the future, whatever this might bring.

In a session this morning Ján Figel (Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, and chair of the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia) remarked that there are three types of people: commentators, lamentators or doers. How pertinent. We can comment, lament or act. It is a choice.

So, what I go on to write now does not ignore the Brexit vote, but it does pay attention to some of the phenomena arising from it that need to be taken seriously because of the impact they have on our culture and the nature of our discourse. I'll put the point in the form of a question.

Is a promise still a promise even when the person doing the promising has no authority to make the promise, no responsibility for fulfilling the promise made, or bears no accountability for the consequences of the promise not being kept?

Well, we know that £350 million is not going to go into the NHS, despite what was written on the side of a bus and vigorously defended in the media by its authors. Actually, it was never going to happen. The only question is why so many people ever believed it. It was not costed, it had already been promised three times over, and none of those who promised it had any authority to do so. Yet, to question it was deemed disloyal or unimaginative.

Yesterday the Sun called the EU spiteful for suggesting that Brits might need to pay for a visa to visit countries such as Germany of France. Well, what did they think would happen? The EU isn't a benevolent society for people who have slagged them off for decades as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Maybe we will learn what our £350 million actually bought us – like free movement and easy/cheap travel.

How would you answer those international MPs who ask what preparations were done in order to enable Brexit to happen? Given that the answer is 'none', and that no one in Whitehall or Downing Street seems able to answer simple questions about what Brexit will (or, even, might) actually look like, saying limply that “we have taken back control” sounds a bit feeble and empty of content.

So, we still hear politicians telling us that we “will” get great deals, that we can forge our way in the world with other countries simply giving us the best on offer – their best interests miraculously coinciding with ours. Not “might” or “hopefully will”, but “will”. A promise. A promise made by people who cannot deliver on it. A promise with no content. And still people seem to believe the promises.

I am beginning to wonder if we might have needed (and should have heeded) experts, after all.

 

For the record, these are two statements issued by the Protestant Church in Germany following the EU Referendum in the UK:

The Chair of the Council of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, has issued the following statement in the wake of the EU Referendum result:

The Evangelical Church in Germany deeply regrets the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. Now it will be necessary to analyse the reasons for this decision. The imminent departure of a country from the EU is a painful matter and must prompt us to drive the European peace project forward even more energetically. With our international ecumenical network, our churches will continue to work towards a united Europe based on solidarity. If it is confirmed that many young people, in particular, voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, we have a particular commitment not to flag in our dedication. Speaking for myself, I see young people as being the hope of Europe. (Hanover/Berlin, 24 June 2016)

 

The German co-chair of the Meissen Commission (of which I am the English co-chair), Ralf Meister, Lutheran bishop of Hanover, and Petra Bosse-Huber, EKD bishop of ecumenical relations and ministries abroad, are seriously dismayed by the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union:

“With all due respect for the democratic decision in Britain and all the obvious necessity for reforms in the EU, in our view Europe will suffer a painful loss with the upcoming withdrawal of an important partner,” said Bishop Ralf Meister. “The spirit of reconciliation and the ecclesial fellowship between our churches will not be affected by this political step. On the contrary, we will do everything to bring our churches and the people in our countries closer together.

“Precisely in our fragile and vulnerable world, and in a Europe that is so directly challenged today, our churches have a mutual need of each other and want to make an energetic contribution to European and global cooperation,” Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber underlined, speaking between sessions of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee meeting in Trondheim, Norway. “Together with our sisters and brothers in the Church of England we are working for a Europe of growing community and just peace,” she added.

 

 

[The Evangelical Church in Germany and the Church of England have for 25 years been bonded through the Meissen Declaration. Together they are on the way towards the full, visible unity of their churches. In past decades countless steps have been taken towards greater togetherness – close partnership relations exist between parishes, cathedrals, German regional churches and dioceses.] (Hanover/Berlin, 24 June 2016)

So, we are now a couple of days on from the EU Referendum in the UK. We have no credible government leadership. Her Majesty's Opposition is falling apart and incapable of offering any leadership or alternative vision. Those who led the campaign to leave the EU are conspicuous by their absence – not unreasonably as – a point made loudly during the campaign – they had no power or authority to do anything once the vote had been taken. Although run like a general election campaign, Leavers had no responsibility to plan, no authority to promise anything (including how much might be committed to the NHS), and no accountability for doing anything once the vote was over.

Therefore, their absence or silence is entirely reasonable.

What is unreasonable, however, is the absence of any government planning for what a Brexit vote might mean. Our political life has become reactively tactical rather than strategically prepared. I guess it just proves that everyone (including most Leavers) assumed that we would remain in the EU, but the protest would have been heard. It is the government's responsibility to plan for all eventualities, but it isn't easy to see who is now driving the bus.

Two points as we live through the chaos. First, the fact of present uncertainty is not the major issue. Life is always uncertain; major national decisions – including general elections – inevitably cause uncertainty. That so many people seem to have believed the claims that everything would now be rosy and that a free UK would lead the world from this small island says something about our internal national fantasies. The chaos will last for some time; some believe it is worth the cost.

Secondly, we always have to shape life in the light of unexpected turns of events. What the Germans, among others, are now telling us is that decisions have consequences and those who make them must take responsibility for those decisions. That is what we call “being grown up”. So, we need to get on with it – whoever the “we” is in the midst of the unforgivable political power vacuum we now inhabit.

And the petition for a second referendum will not work. Would the same plea from the Brexiters have been accepted, had the vote gone the other way by the same margin? The best hope would be for David Cameron to call a general election now and allow the matter to be resolved in the place where power and responsibility (to say nothing about authority and accountability) are directly affected by that vote. I won't hold my breath. In the meantime, of course, the Europeans we have dismissed, derided, abused and mocked in our public discourse will feel no need to be nice to us in what lies ahead.

Now, what do Christians do in all this? Well, as in church this morning in Ilkley, we pray. We make the space for all-comers to hold together in a common space where different views and emotions are strongly held. We can provide a space where the nerve can be held while the political vacuum persists. And – the real power of this – it can be done locally, at every level and in every place. Nothing magic; just space for people to stick with this one for a while.

After all, we are realists. Our foundation narrative reaches back 3,000 years to a people who, led from oppression and captivity in Egypt (in the narrative metaphor used by one or two Brexiters during the campaign), did not drop straight into the land flowing with milk and honey. First they spent forty years in the desert while a generation of romanticisers and fantasists died off; then there was a fair amount of violence before they began to prosper in their land. As Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges in his book 'Three Mile and Hour God', the temptation to rush out of the desert is dangerous; we have to have the courage to stay there, to live with it while we go through the process – which we know from history – cannot be rushed.

As the prophets of the Old Testament teach us, when empires die and tactical alliances implode, the thing to do in the desert is to keep alive the songs of 'home' – to hold out a vision of a better way … and a way of living through this present reality with hope, imagination and commitment.

Lamentable though it is, we are where we are. What matters now is how we shape the vision for what we want to become … and devise the strategy for getting there.

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.