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A nation in moral meltdown

01 July 2016

Paul Oestreicher fled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He sees worrying parallels now

“GOODBY Germany, France and the rest. . . a new Britain is rising from the shackles. . . Adieu” proclaims The Sun triumphantly. The Mail is just as toxic. UKIP and its poisonous media backers have thrown Britain into a maelstrom of bitterness. In the midst of all that, an MP whose life spoke only of love and compassion lost that life on the streets of Birstall. Politicians abandoned British civility and charged each other with lying.

These were the symptoms of a nation in moral meltdown, while the future of the UK and, above all, its younger generation was at stake.

This is all too much like the Germany I lived in as a child. When I was two, a charismatic demagogue fooled the people — particularly the poor, the powerless, and neglected — into electing him. Five years later, my parents had to beg for asylum anywhere that would take us. I was a refugee child, fleeing from Hitler.

All the while, the German Churches, concerned with themselves, passed by on the other side. By the time some opposition emerged in the Churches, it was already too late to avert catastrophe. That is very nearly true of England now.

The referendum was about openness and tolerance versus insularity and fear of “the other”; self-interested nationalism versus the common good of the nations of Europe working together.

It beggars belief that the Church of England chose to have no official view on all this, as though there were an even playing-field, as though light and darkness were evenly balanced. The Church of England, unlike the Church of Scotland, made no corporate attempt to help to enlighten the people, even though its counsel was hardly sought.

Ill-informed and beguiled by populist slogans, England has walked over a precipice. When someone tries to tries to take his or her own life, who would stand by and watch? True, both of our Archbishops and about 20 bishops did make known their personal choice for Europe. This was too big for that. The poor will be the main victims of a damaged economy, never mind the possible end of the UK. Crying wolf? The wolves are back.

We, our European neighbours, and the wider world will long have to go on paying for this self-inflicted wound. It will heal only slowly. Cheap grace is no Christian way out, no road to reconciliation.

There will be further challenges to come. Next autumn, the politicians are to decide whether Britain should renew its nuclear arsenal. Will we wash our hands and once again say, “Oh, just a matter of opinion”? Will we once again sit on the fence?

Canon Paul Oestreicher is Emeritus Director of the Centre for International Reconciliation, Coventry Cathedral.

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