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Church leaders seek to unite divided country

01 July 2016


Comfort blanket: A demonstrator wrapped in the EU flag takes part in a protest opposing Britain's exit from the European Union in Parliament Square following yesterday's EU referendum result, on Saturday

Comfort blanket: A demonstrator wrapped in the EU flag takes part in a protest opposing Britain's exit from the European Union in Parliament Squ...

UNITY, hope, and generosity are the values needed to enable the country to emerge from the transition out of the EU “confident and successful”, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said.

In a result that confounded last-minute expectations, 51.9 per cent of voters in the UK opted to leave the EU. The Archbishops joined other church leaders, many of whom had publicly expressed their intention to vote Remain, in calling for reconciliation.

“We must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward-looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world,” they said in a statement issued on Friday morning. “We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers.” [Full statement below].

People must support those from overseas who would now be feeling a “deep sense of insecurity” by offering “reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one”.

Acknowledging that the campaign had caused “hurt”, they called for “humility and courage — being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation”.

It was confirmed on Thursday that the General Synod will debate a motion "endorsing the Archbishops’ recent call for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world", in York next week.

Prayers for the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who announced on Friday that he would step down after three more months in office, were also sought by the Archbishops.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron said: “The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path, and, as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.” He had fought to persuade Britain to remain part of the EU with “head, heart, and soul”, he said.

The results revealed a sharp division between London, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the rest of the UK. Of the nine official Government regions of England, only one, London, voted in favour of the Leave option. Although an overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party supported the Remain campaign, many of its strongholds in the north voted against. The Rt Revd Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, where two-thirds of voters backed Brexit, warned that, “should it prove that our decision to leave the EU has been based on spin, exaggeration, or unrealistic promises, the public mood could soon turn sour”.

Some of the largest cities in the north, including Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester voted to Remain. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said this week that he was “glad” that he and others had chosen not to take a public position on the referendum, which “may have made it easier for us to understand and sympathise with arguments and voters across a wide spectrum”.

Those who voted Remain must “acknowledge the overwhelming majority of Leave voters who are not part of the racist fringe that disfigures our society”, he said. “Men and women who believe with integrity that their vote will help us get something of our identity and even our country back. We need to engage with those who have seen little by way of economic benefit from EU membership, as their towns and villages have suffered decline, and who hope that a more independent Britain offers a chance for change.”

Dr Walker was critical of a Remain reaction that “feels engulfed in and paralysed by a bereavement that most UK voters do not share, and for whom even the present turmoil in our political parties and the financial markets may be a sign that for once they have stood up and been counted”. Those on the Leave side must “isolate those who are trying to use the referendum decision as a building block for a resurgence of racist aggression”.

One of the few Labour MPs who campaigned to leave (Comment, 3 June), Frank Field, said that the result was “the first clear revolt against globalisation and its undermining of working-class living standards. The major task from now on is to reassure Europe that we want our negotiations to be successful for them, but also for Great Britain”.

By the time voting was under way on Thursday, at least 20 C of E Bishops had publicly stated their intention to vote Remain, including several of those with seats in the House of Lords. All the Church in Wales Bishops said that they would vote to Remain, although the Welsh people voted 52.5 per cent to leave.

While many Bishops emphasised that the result reflected the will of the people and must be respected, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign, said on Twitter that he had signed a petition calling on the Government to hold another referendum if the Remain or Leave vote was less than 60 per cent and based on a turnout of less than 75 per cent.

Dioceses were themselves divided. In many, including Norwich, the cathedral city voted Remain while the surrounding area voted Leave.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, described his diocese as “east London in and Essex out”, and told the House of Lords that he had heard from a head teacher that children were “frightened” when they went to school on Friday. She had seen an increase in “race hatred and intolerance”.

London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, said that he was “very conscious of the fact that the large majority of those under the age of 25 voted to Remain”. Before the announcement of the referendum result, he had expressed concern in the House of Lords about a diversion from “our settled preference for a representative democracy”.

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, suggested that London “can perhaps provide something of a model for the rest of the country, in that it has managed to assimilate a huge immigrant population, so that there is remarkably little racial tension in the city. However, there is an urgent need for the resources of London to be spread more widely to avoid this kind of national division.”

He described how the Church in London had become aware of the need to “share resources”, through exporting clergy and church planting.

Not all bishops supported the call for reconciliation. A former Bishop of Tonbridge, the Rt Revd Brian Castle, suggested that the nation was not ready, comparing it to “putting sellotape on a septic wound. It may hold everything together on the surface, but beneath there is poison festering away, ready to break out once it has built up pressure and momentum.”

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said on Friday that the campaign had exposed “the extent to which a good many British people feel alienated from mainstream London and Brussels-centric political discourse”.

The “discontent with the structures of the EU” was “widely shared by other Europeans”, he said. “I hope that EU leaders and officials are able to bring about the reform to European political structures that is needed for these structures to endure.

“I pray that they do endure. Because they were constructed to serve the cause of peace and reconciliation after the two terrible world wars. The task of reconciliation is never done, and I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy the kind of European peace which my generation has known.”

He expressed concern for both Ireland and Scotland.

The Church of Scotland’s Convener of the Church & Society Council, the Revd Dr Richard Frazer, said that the decision to leave was one “which many people will regret”. He believed that it was “a vote against that spirit of international co-operation” for which the Church of Scotland stood, and one which “hardly seems to be an act of solidarity even with our friends in places like Greece, which is going through so much turmoil at the moment both economically and in bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis”. The result would “raise questions about Scotland’s future in the rest of the UK”. On Friday, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, spoke of the likelihood of a second independence referendum.

The result in Scotland was partly the result of the fact that the population had become more engaged in politics because of the campaign for independence, during which the profile of the EU was raised, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, said this week.

“I simply don’t know anyone who voted Leave. I think that people like me in pulpits who did not hear the voices of those who voted to leave need to understand the frustrations and address the concerns.”

He foresaw two possibilities for the future of Scotland: home rule, with Scotland as a region remaining in the EU, or independence resulting in a border with England.

Preparations to leave the EU will now get under way. Mr Cameron said that it should be his successor who decides when to trigger Article 50 to begin the formal and legal process.

As leadership struggles within both the Labour and Conservative parties got underway, and amid warnings from the City about the economic impact of Brexit, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, was among those offering reassurance.

“Coalitions of nations and leaders may come and go, but God’s sovereign purposes will come to pass, and in that we take comfort and courage for the journey ahead,” he said on Friday.


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