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.