AT MY bishops’ cell group in May, I came out as a Brexit bishop. My episcopal friends, at first, did not believe me. The following 24 hours brought some lively conversation, mixed with a certain amount of gentle mocking.
Yes, I voted to leave the European Union. I did so for all the usual reasons that were cited over the past months: democratic deficit, huge central staff salaries, waste of resources in Brussels and Strasbourg, loss of both sovereignty and oversight of UK laws.
I have long hoped for the reformation of the EU. In February, I felt pity for David Cameron as he hailed a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It showed that the EU leaders did not see the need for any reformation. It smacked of arrogance.
While in agreement with the EU’s outlook on tackling climate change, and its policies on GM seeds, I had other reasons for voting Leave:
The EU’s commitment to its member states means it can be a bad neighbour to outsiders. Its actions have an adverse impact on poorer countries through various trade policies, most notably the Common Agricultural Policy. The EU’s export subsidies for EU agricultural products have disastrous consequences for food security, and undercut agricultural sectors in the poorest nations. Jesus teaches us that our neighbour is not just our next-door neighbour, but everyone. Leaving the EU does not mean shunning Europe. We are Europeans, and we will still have strong relationships with EU nations. Being able to make our own trade agreements, however, gives us an opportunity to be more globally linked.
The EU does not seem to be good news for the poorest nations in the eurozone. Countries in the single currency, struggling economically, appear stuck with low growth. Unable to devalue their currency, they are trapped in a rut of depression. Youth unemployment in Spain, Greece, and Italy has soared, and extremist political groups are gaining a strong foothold.
The UK has a proud history of welcoming migrants, and has benefited from the presence and contribution migrants make to society. Unrestricted EU immigration, however, means that we end up discriminating against non-EU nationals. This seems especially perverse when the UK has strong relationships with many other countries of the world through the Commonwealth, not just with the EU. The barriers to employing people from beyond the EU have become more numerous. For a Church in the UK that is weak in mission, it would be particularly welcome to have greater freedom to invite missionaries from the global South here to help us evangelise our country and rediscover our Christian roots.
Unrestricted EU immigration has been adversely affecting the poorest people in the UK. It may seem great if you want to employ a plumber, a nanny, or a builder; but to those competing with immigrants for jobs, houses, or places at schools, it looks very different.
As we approach life ahead, post-referendum, here are a few ways God may beckon us to help build bridges, heal divisions, and bring unity.
Listening to the marginalised: our hope is in Christ who unites all of us. The referendum has highlighted faultlines and divisions in our society. Churches are called, like Christ, to stand with the voiceless and the marginalised. Some of those voices have been racist and xenophobic. We are not aligning with these, of course. We must, however, align ourselves with those who feel unheard, not allowing them to be dismissed as “uneducated” and “stupid”. Why are so many people so angry? The new work around mission on urban estates may have something to teach us here. But let’s not forget that the rural poor have also spoken loud and clear in this referendum.
Hospitality: many churches already offer an extensive ministry of hospitality to migrants and minority-ethnic communities. A question for Churches Together groups to put on their agenda for the next meeting: Can we learn from those who model good practice?
Being in Europe does not mean you have to be in the EU. All across the UK, there are towns and villages twinned with towns and villages in France and Germany. And there are many dioceses that have formal links with other dioceses across Europe. Sharing meals and hospitality; exploring faith and ideas, enjoying laughter and conversation with our neighbours across the Channel: Let’s do more of it! Such hospitality can strengthen our bonds of friendship more than any policy or agreement. After all, loving football does not mean you have to love FIFA.
The Rt Revd Mark Rylands is Bishop of Shrewsbury.