A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

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.

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.

Despite my deep European experience and connections (as well as affections), I decided early on in the referendum campaign to treat it like a real debate and listen to the arguments. The whole point of a debate is that those involved should listen and, if appropriate, be willing to change their mind. I wanted to be open to being persuaded either way. Consequently, apart from a couple of general observations about the nature and terms of the debate on the Reimagining Europe blog, I decided not to campaign for either side.

I then intended to put my personal conclusions into writing here around ten days before the referendum itself – on the grounds that after that there would be little or nothing to say or hear that had not already been said or heard. Then, when I was about to do it, Jo Cox MP was murdered in Birstall, West Yorkshire by a man who, in court, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In the light of this, and wondering what would actually constitute a “free” Britain, I have pondered further.

I had intended to do a longer piece, arguing my points thoroughly. I no longer have the stomach for it – and, anyway, I am now too busy with other things. So, I will keep this brief and to the point, but also point to the Bishop of Chelmsford's excellent and thoughtful piece as the context-setter for what follows here.

Baroness Brady wrote in the Sun – and I think she encapsulates very succinctly and well the struggle many people feel between head and heart – that her heart is saying:

I love my country, I want to protect it. We don't want anyone telling us what to do and we'd be OK on our own.”

And there, I think, is the crunch. A mature country, like a mature human being, is open to seeing itself as it is seen from the outside, and then learning from that. A country that can be interdependent is one that is confident in itself – confident enough to learn from others, to look at itself critically through the eyes of others, and big enough to know that no country “is an island, entire of itself”. It is big enough to hold others to account and to be held to account.

The campaign itself has been depressing beyond words. Project Fear was not a monopoly exercise on either side. But, what pushed me to the limit was the irresponsible quoting of figures and promises that were baseless in fact and unarguable in reality. 'Facts' turn out actually to be assertion or mere opinion. For example, taking the economic statements:

  • Trade deals require at least two parties. Assuming that, were the UK free to negotiate its own deals – as if this can be done independently and in isolation – it is entirely possible that the other parties will ultimately not allow us the best deals for us and on our preferred terms. In fact, countries we have slagged off for being incompetent and corrupt might not forget this when dealing with us in the future. It cannot be assumed that negotiations will always land us with the best deal – and the promise that we will get our own way is questionable on a number of grounds. As Wolfgang Schäuble said with typically German clarity: “In is in, out is out”. It takes two to tango and the other's affections cannot be taken for granted.
  • Access to the single market will require that we obey the conditions the EU will impose (including free movement, etc.), pay the money accordingly, but allow us no vote in the setting of the rules or voice at the table when they are being set. If anything is “undemocratic”, surely that is – it is better to be at the table where our voice can count.

But, the economic arguments are not the most important ones for me. No one can promise what will happen if we stay or of we go. Boris Johnson can say with total confidence (as he did last week) that “Yorkshire will thrive like never before if we vote to leave the EU”, yet he can offer not one shred of evidence that this will be the case, what it might look like or on what basis he can state it as bold fact. I would be interested to hear the argument, but none is offered because none can be made. It is all speculation and wishful thinking. So is much of the Remain case for what might happen if we do vote to leave. This is unaccountable sloganising for emotional impact; it just has little to do with reality.

Furthermore, as relatively little has changed in the banking system since the crash of 2008, it is little wonder that predictions of a further major crash are now coming thick and fast. The threats to the British people come not from membership of the EU, but from the same old sources: a financial system that has not been fundamentally amended since 2008, a growing rift between the rich and poor across the globe, conflicts to which we have all been party, and an increasing disconnect between populations and the political classes.

We know that security cannot be assured in isolation. If we are to be secure, then we also have to look to the security and interests of those alongside whom we live. Britain cannot look to its own security in isolation from the wider continent and the wider world. A fragmentation of Europe – which happened a century ago as the archetype of the Law of Unintended Consequences of series of small decisions that, together and uncoordinated, caused a world war – is entirely possible again. The UK will be affected by what happens elsewhere. The EU is the institution to hold the thing together politically so that we do not find ourselves having to react to decisions made elsewhere over which we have had no say because we have no accountable institutional relationship. Leaving the EU might sound attractive for the UK for certain reasons, but what then happens in the EU (and on the continent of Europe) will impact on our islands: we cannot simply draw up the bridge and pretend we can be secure alone, thrive alone.

The dismissal of 'elites' by… er… elites is bizarre. The constant belittling of 'experts' is both miserable and inane – especially when the same politicians will be building their political cases on the support of experts from next Friday onwards. Migration is a global phenomenon and it will not cease to impact the UK if we vote to leave. The debate has used migration in a way I hoped had been left in the 1930s; few of those who speak of it have actually been out of the comfort of England to see the reality lived with in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. For years migration has been a toxic subject in our public discourse, Concerns are real; domestic solutions cannot be found in isolation from the global.

“Take back control” sounds marvellous, doesn't it? Yet, it assumes we do not have control of our country. Is that true? If so, in what way? Shared sovereignty is not the same as lost sovereignty. Decisions made in the EU are not done to us, but with us. Yet, the rhetoric pretends that we are victims of powers beyond our control – as if we were absent.

Like many others, I am not blind to the need for substantial reform of the EU institutions. Its democratic accountability and financial probity need serious attention. We can only drive these if we are at the table, holding others to account. I believe we need to be in if we are to hold others in. And, contrary to much of the Brexit discourse, we cannot cannot uphold the interests of Britain without paying attention to the interests of our neighbours and listening to their critique of us. Not always getting our own way is not the same as being subject to a lack of democratic process.

Finally, the language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.

So, everyone must come to their own conclusions on Thursday. Promises and predictions made on both sides should be weighed for their realism and integrity: are they wishful (or fearful) thinking, or are they rooted in something accountable in some way? And how might they be subject to “events” that will inevitably confound both the promises and predictions made before “events” happen? I respect the judgements people will make – there are cogent arguments on both sides, even if these have largely been sunk beneath the tide of bile and sloganising that has characterised this dreadful campaign.

I conclude (as there isn't time to do this properly) with an observation. Closely connected with churches in other EU countries, we will continue – whichever way the vote goes – to work with humility and without hubris for reconciliation and closer relationships with our neighbours. Christian theology might not indicate which way people should vote on Thursday, but it does set a context for hopeful (rather than fearful) imagination; it demands that we do not misrepresent our neighbour's case (the ninth Commandment); it calls for the establishment of relationships of love and grace; it opens up the possibility of generosity and security rooted in a recognition of our mutual humanity; and it calls us to pay attention to the constant and ongoing need for mercy and hope.

I will vote to remain in the European Union. And I will do so because I want to ask not just what Europe can do for us, but for what we can do for Europe … and that means being committed to the European Union.

Whichever way we vote, and whichever way the vote goes next Thursday, who and how will we be on Friday?

 

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.