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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

The Reimagining Europe blog continues to provide space for a different sort of conversation about the future of Europe ahead of the UK referendum in 2017.

2017 is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg). And, of course, you can't understand the shape of Europe or its history without understanding the Reformation.

So, I have posted a piece about the need to remember well, even when this might offend our prejudices or ideological interests. All in the interests of promoting the debate.