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European chaplains shocked by referendum result

01 July 2016


Blue: “Remain” campaigners protest

Blue: “Remain” campaigners protest

CHAPLAINS across Europe have expressed shock, disbelief, disappointment, grief, anger, fear, and deep sadness, and witnessed it in their communities, since the majority of Britain voted to leave the European Union.

The Assistant Chaplain of Aquitaine, in the south-west of France, the Revd Gill Strachan, said that information trickling through in the aftermath of the vote “is enough to make one weep.”

“My initial thoughts on [the] decision to leave the EU were characterised by disbelief, despair, and deep, deep sadness,” she said on Monday. “One has seen news footage of elderly ladies delighted that ‘now Britain can be what it used to be’ [and] of someone who actually asked ‘What’s the EU?’

“Here in Aquitaine, one Englishman admitted to having voted to leave because he ‘hates every single Moslem’ — and we have put this momentous decision into the hands of people such as these.”

In Austria, the Chaplain of Christ Church, Vienna, the Ven. Patrick Curran, said: “‘Little England’ had won out over a larger and more generous vision: a vision in which England sees itself as a major contributor to the health, wealth, stability, and peace of Europe.

“The populist right in Austria has been encouraged by the vote to leave the European Union. . . Most people are agreed that the European Union needs reforming, but so do all nation states.”

Canon Christopher Jage-Bowler, a chaplain in Berlin, said that to presume that the Germans “do not understand and are upset” by the Brexit vote is an understatement. “The British sense of fair play, her culture of dependable, rational and pragmatic thinking, and not least her democratic traditions, are greatly respected here. And so greater was the shock and disbelief on 24 June. Everyone was wrong-footed,” he said.

“As in any separation proceedings, sadness and upset quickly turn to impatience, anger, and blame, while more measured voices hope that the chance will be taken for serious restructuring and reform of the EU, and argue for a generous-spirited response to the UK.”

The chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, said in a statement that he “deeply regrets” the UK’s decision. “The imminent departure of a country from the EU is a painful matter and must prompt us to drive the European peace project forward even more energetically.”

The German co-chair of the Meissen Commission, Bishop Ralf Meister, warned that Europe will suffer a “painful loss”, but said that “the spirit of reconciliation and the ecclesial fellowship” between the Anglican and German Churches will not be affected.

The Chaplain of Christ Church, City Centre, in the Amsterdam chaplaincy, the Revd James Hill, said that it was “an unbelievable and unexpected result for us” but that “after the initial shock and anger, I’m very grateful that my core identity is still in the Messiah, in the Body of Christ, which has no national boundaries.”

The British in Brittany also “woke with a sense of shock and disbelief” last Friday morning, the Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Brittany, the Ven. Fred Trethewey, said. “Some have spoken of feeling physically sick and betrayed by the country of which they are still a part. The decision is widely deplored among the ex-pat community, and many are using the language of bereavement.”

He went on: “There is anger and frustration about the impact on the prospects of young people in the UK; the legitimising of hate; and the apparent lack of political forethought on both sides of the Channel.”

While French friends and neighbours are being supportive, they are also “mystified” as to the outcome, and worried that an exodus of British people would be detrimental to the economy.

“Particularly galling for people here is the impression, picked up from British television, that a number of people used their vote as a protest and now regret precipitating the crisis that has ensued.”

The Senior Chaplain and Chancellor of the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity, in Brussels, Canon Paul Vrolijk, said that the outcome was a “massive shock” but that the bereavement process has now started. “I have spoken with many people who for various reasons feel angry, anxious, sad, and deeply disappointed. Some in our congregation have dedicated decades of their lives participating in, and contributing to, the European project. Several of them did not have a vote in the referendum.”

He went on: “In one way everything has changed: the repercussions of the UK’s decision will set the tone for months and years to come. In another way, nothing has changed. We are God’s people.”

The Priest-in-Charge of Costa del Sol (West), the Revd Professor Adrian Low, said that “incredulity, depression, sadness, and hopelessness” were still in the eyes of many in the 10 a.m congregation in San Pedro, outside Marbella, last Sunday. The Anglican Chaplaincy, which covers 55 miles of coastline, has about 80,000 expats.

“For many, maybe most here, it was the most dreadful decision the UK had made in their lifetimes. It was for me,” he said. “The great fear is that Spain will close the border. I could not believe Boris [Johnson] saying on Monday ‘Now project fear is over’ — no it is not. The fear is just starting.”

The people have been lied to by Leave campaigners, and the inheritance of the next generation has been denied to them, he said. “Of course the Archbishops needed to propose reconciliation. But for many here it is not about reconciliation. The only real solution is a rerun of the referendum with truth, not lies.”

Professor Low is supporting a petition to re-run the referendum, which has already accrued more than four million signatures. “No, I’m not leaving the battlefront yet. Yes I am still bitter,” he said. “This is very wrong.”

In Latvia, the Chaplain of St Saviour’s, Riga, the Rt Revd Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, said that, before the referendum, the possibility of Brexit brought fear to the diocesan Synod in Europe, “and palpable disbelief was in the air”. Now it is a reality, all the chaplaincies are facing deep questions.

“My deepest and sincerest prayer is that the glimpse of the ‘’monster of extremes’ (News, 24 July) which we have seen during the campaign will wake us all to renewed prayer and vigilance, and to a renewed commitment to Christian reconciliation and shared service in faith and love.”

The Chaplain of St Paul’s, Monaco, the Very Revd Walter H. Raymond OGS, said that, given that the vast majority in the country are “proud Europeans”, the decision to vote for Brexit “came as a blow: a slap in the face for an Italian friend, a jolt for British seniors who depend on the social benefits their European citizenship once insured”.

Though there are exceptions, he said, for himself and for many, the vote suggests “the possible disintegration of a rather splendid if quixotic dream: a united, co-operative Europe, free from internal warfare, bullying and strife, promoting values of social justice and human decency in an increasingly broken and dangerous world.”

In the Netherlands, the Chaplain in The Hague, the Revd Andrew Gready, said: “We went to bed on Thursday evening fearing the worst — and awoke on Friday with those fears being realised.”

At its Friday coffee morning, Britons were “ashamed, apologising, embarrassed”, and attempting to find reasons behind the vote, he said. “People are bewildered and confused — they are sad at the lost opportunities that there are bound to be, and they are sad about what the vote says about parts of the UK.”

There will also be pressure on the country to vote for their own exit from the EU, he said, but “seeing what has happened in the UK since the vote will certainly make people here think twice about a similar vote and outcome.”

The impressions of the UK as an “insular island, cut off from Europe” and voting with race in mind, however, will be harder to shake, he said.

“Brexit feels chaotic: like the Greek financial crisis, but without the sunshine,” the Chaplain of the Anglican Church of Luxembourg, the Revd Chris Lyon, said. “It feels to me like a poorly made decision, a moment of national narcissistic folly of Biblical proportions.”

Reports of racist abuse in England after the vote is also “deeply shocking”, and the Church must do more to curb this behaviour.

“The Church of England has been almost totally silent on Europe, for decades,” he said. “The EU is not a divine project, even though it was founded by people of deep Christian faith, as project for peace. But British people might also soon start to realise that they are not God’s specially chosen people, despite the words of ‘Rule Britannia’.” 

A chaplain of the Anglican Church in Warsaw, the Revd David Brown, said that during the campaign the Polish community in the UK felt that “they were being painted as ‘living off the State’ which in fact is the opposite of the truth. Sadly, they do not feel that they are appreciated as a positive asset to the UK.”

In Poland, people were “shocked and surprised” by the result. “They are very supportive of the English because they realise that we are all naturally worried about our future here.”

In Prague, the Chaplain of St Clement’s Anglican Episcopal Church, the Revd Ricky Yates, said he also reacted with “shock and numbness” at the news.

“I know of Swedes who are optimistic,” said the Chaplain of St Peter and St Sigfrid, Stockholm, the Revd Nick Howe, “who are sure that the UK will make a go of things, who seem confident in British creativity and resilience; who tell me that there is nothing to fear. But what I meet in many UK nationals is not panic, nor fear, so much as grief.

“Grief for lost opportunities — for themselves and their children. Grief for the country they left, which has become a foreign land. Grief for a lost vision of working together for the common good. I feel it, too.”

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, said that although the consequences of the result are primarily a matter for the UK Government, there were “instant repercussions” elsewhere, including Ireland. “The relationships we share — political, social and economic — are special to us,” he said. “We are all in the very early days of coming to terms with this decision. Our overriding concern would be that ways be worked out carefully to ensure meaningful co-existence and co-operation in a radically new climate.”

The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, released a statement immediately after the result raising concerns about the implications for Ireland, Scotland, and Gibraltar. He has since expressed regret that the Church did not play a more dominant part in securing the UK’s future in the EU.

He said on Tuesday: “My feeling a few days after the referendum is predominantly grief. I mourn a loss of political vision, of national vocation, a selling-out on the future prospects of our young people. I wonder whether we, as a national Church, did enough to help inform our parishioners and people about what was really at stake in this vote.

“Yet beyond this, I retain a sense of hope — even if I can’t yet give much definite shape and content to it — for I believe in a God who holds the destiny of the nations in his hands.”

The President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), Bishop Christopher Hill, said in a statement that he deeply regrets the result, and also the manner, of the referendum. “A major task for CEC now. . . will be to contribute to a rational debate, starting with the already existing dialogue within our member Churches throughout Europe.”

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