THE General Synod’s agenda had been altered by the Archbishops, using their presidential powers, to provide for a post-Brexit debate on Friday afternoon.
Introducing the debate on the European Union referendum, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that, in the aftermath of the vote, “we must now deal with the world as it is, not for survival, but for the flourishing of common good as witness to Kingdom of God.”
The length, high turnout, and clarity of the result — and the complex debate in the House of Lords last week — had made it clear how big an event the referendum was, and how great an impact it would make on the future of this country in all aspects from the economy to civil aviation, Archbishop Welby said.
The consequences of the implementation and aftermath of Article 50 would stretch well beyond the period of active service of many Synod members present.
The result had caused “deep divisions”, and raised the challenge of identity and integration both of EU citizens in the UK and also of communities in the UK.
“We need to remember that we have two million anxious expatriates beyond our shores who are now fearful and rejected, and with good reason,” he said. The result had also released racism and xenophobia, which had collided with ideals of tolerance and acceptance.
There were three key challenges. The Church must “do God”, and not accept fear as a force of thinking, not let it define their politics, but, like the Christians who suffered abroad, trust in God through theology. “The Church must tackle especially integration, not simply of different cultures, but within our own land, and, if we do that, we must also tackle inequality,” the Archbishop said.
This meant addressing child poverty, and pushing a more equal society through education, public health, mental health, and helping the poorest through forward-thinking foreign policy. “We have not left Europe yet,” he said to applause from the chamber. Though their politics might change, the cross of Christ would continue to unite them.
He concluded that the clearest inspiration in all this, to bring hope in anxious times, was to be a holy community at love with neighbour in worship and prayer, and to “manage our disagreements with transparent love and delight, and not with words and actions that discredit the hope of unity”.
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, gave a perspective from Brussels, where Belgians saw the EU as “a vital part of peace-building and reconciliation of post-war Europe”. Although “everyone understands that the EU is imperfect,” his friends there had been “deeply shocked and saddened that Britain is walking away from it”. Those who had dedicated their careers to working for the EU “feel their country has rejected their life’s work”.
Although a few were pleased, there were many more who were deeply upset. Typical reactions were “shame, anger, and deep sadness”. Ordinary working people who had retired to Europe were “desperately worried”. He said: “This referendum and result represent a sad loss of national vocation, abject failure of political leadership and squandering of the birthright of our young people.”
But there was a need to move on. Those who had voted Remain must not bear grudges, and those who voted Leave must understand the deep pain that many were feeling. “Together we must rebuild a sense of common purpose, and work through the chilly economic times that are already coming upon us.” While he saw the part that he had to play as building bridges, “Britain seems to be country keen to build fences.” He urged people to build and strengthen links with churches in Europe.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, urged the Synod to “look forward, not look back”. The Church must “continue to work as a uniting force in our communities”. The result had put Britain back on the global front line. No longer under the umbrella of the EU, it must challenge issues such as inquality, globalisation, and migration, and should maintain an “internationalist focus” through other means, such as NATO and the United Nations.
The Church must look afresh at how to reach the vulnerable and marginalised, and seek to address the very real concerns and divisions that had come to light. The Church had a “unique reach into communities”, with a “toolkit of spiritual language which enables it to address challenges far better than politicians. Church and State need to work together effectively to heal the country socially, economically, and politically.”
There was a need for “constructive engagement as crucial friends”. This was a great opportunity for the Church to step beyond its walls and engage with communities, a “great missional opportunity that I hope we can all grasp”.
The Revd Graeme Buttery (Durham) described the statue of Andy Capp (a “fictional layabout”) in Hartlepool and his impression from what he had read, that Capp had voted 17 million times. He noted the turnout of 72 per cent, and argued that the 70 per cent who voted Leave were “angry”. This was not, he emphasised, “incoherent rage”. It was a “focus and idea and concept and belief that all too many people there feel has not been heard for well over 40 years”.
He continued: “It beggars belief that if you give folk a voice you could ever be surprised that they give one of two answers. You might not like it; you gave them a chance.”
He noted that the EU had “poured vast sums of money” into the area, but also listed the decline of industry. “Since we joined [the EU], the shipyards have sunk, coal mines collapsed, steelworks rusted, and chemical works dissolved.” He also recalled the loss of 600 jobs in a day after a call centre was relocated to India. “No number of grants can make that right anywhere near quickly enough.”
People had felt that their voice had gone unheard. He was pleased at the motion, and called for unity around a workforce that did not suffer the tyranny of zero-hour contracts, and jobs moved anywhere except Hartlepool; for education universally available, and for a society “where you do not get older and sicker when you move across town.” It was time to appreciate the talents of every single person.
The Revd Paul Hutchinson (York) moved his amendment, which would replace the word “recognising” with “mindful of”. He said that recognising carried overtones of approval or acceptance, which many members of the Synod would struggle with, given the “unretracted misrepresentations” of the campaign. “Mindful” was more neutral, he suggested.
Archbishop Welby said that he would resist the amendment because he did not think that the word recognise implied approval. “You recognise things you dislike, like Brussels sprouts or garlic, in my case,” he said. “It means you acknowledge they exist and you don’t try and pretend otherwise.” Ditching “recognise” could imply that the Synod wanted to reject the result of the referendum.
Clive Scowen (London) warned the Synod not to fall into a “constitutional heresy”; as the UK was a parliamentary democracy, the EU vote was purely advisory, and would not necessarily shape the future of the country. “I want to leave open the possibility of a new relationship with Europe which doesn’t necessarily involve leaving the EU.”
Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford) opposed the amendment, and said that in his parish many of those who had voted in the referendum had done so after much agonising struggle and for the very first time. “If we accept this amendment, we are in danger of saying we don’t want to listen to those people. We might not like the result we got, but we got it. What happened happened.”
The amendment fell.
Enid Barron (London) moved her amendment, which would add another clause recommending that the Church take concrete measures to reunite communities. “The referendum campaign and the result have opened up wounds in our society which have been festering for some time,” she said. As Christians, they must spring into action to heal these wounds and their underlying causes. “We need to step up to the plate and give leadership, especially in this absence of leadership in government.”
Archbishop Welby accepted Mrs Barron’s amendment. “The issue around unity and integration which Canon Buttery put in front of us is one that the Church should be at the very forefront in tackling.”
Sir Anthony Baldry (Oxford) said that in London the Church was developing a programme of peacemakers, training young people to go back into their communities in and around London and teach reconciliation in such difficult times. But it had been difficult to reach beyond London. The Church must look to train peacemakers outside London and extend the programme to other dioceses, and the amendment could include this.
The amendment was carried.
Canon Rosemarie Mallett (Southwark) said that the message of the EU referendum result was still raw. She understood the need for fearlessness and a push towards unity, in a country that seems to have been almost halved regionally, demographically, and in many other ways. She had lived all over the UK and elsewhere in the world, was different from the majority of UK in ethnicity and colour, and was remembering all the past hurts of racist abuse, which had resurfaced in recent weeks. “So let us continue to speak the afforming and united love of Christ and build bridges, understanding that some of us are scared and hurting.”
The Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) was grateful to the Archbishops for putting the debate on the agenda, and noted that the country had witnessed a “shifting of tectonic plates”, which has reverberated in Westminster, where there was a “disturbing sense of unreality as leadership races take place”.
The referendum had caused a “deep democratic-deficit problem”, in which the political narrative of the UK had been conclusively rejected: this included a rejection of the narrative and views of the Church. The Church needed to talk to those working people who had felt disempowered, and that their democracy had been taken from them, and assure them that their voices were being heard loud and clear.
The Revd Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy (Rochester) wholeheartedly welcomed the motion because it represented a society he wished to be part of: equal and valued. The desire for independence had not been expressed with the neutrality of common interest and purpose which the Church could provide. “The credibility of the church voice must be seen to be living out what it preaches, or it is hollow. It must lead the way to demonstrable change with courage,” he said.
The Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs (Leeds), defended the relevance of the Church in modern society, remembering the murder of Jo Cox MP, at which time “the world’s media looked to the Church to comment.” The Church had a vocabulary to be able to speak at these difficult times, he said, and that was a valuable contribution that must be made. He encouraged the Synod to proclaim a message of hope in that prophetic voice: “the world needs to hear it, and wants to hear it.”
Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) said that the Church must learn from the referendum. As had been witnessed in the recent Chilcot inquiry, “winning peace is far more difficult than waging war,” she said. She had been scared to voice her own decision to vote Leave, owing to “the weight of feeling, victimisation, and demonisation” by those who had a different view. They should not label and presume why people have voted the way they had: rather, seek to “truly get to the bottom” of the issue that to win peace was more difficult and costly than waging war. Otherwise, they would experience the same shock in future as two weeks ago.
Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) agreed. He warned Synod members reluctant to attend the Shared Conversations on Sunday that the time was a “prophetic gift” to show whether it was possible to “disagree well, as a gift for our nation”, whose deep scars had been revealed.
Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that a Brexit vote had been “bold and brave”. For many, it had been a declaration of dissatisfaction with society as it currently was, and of a desire for change. Many in deprived areas had voted Leave. For many in these areas, life was “incredibly tough” and they felt “abandoned”, “rejected”, “despised”, and “disempowered”.
She continued: “They are voiceless. They do not think anyone cares about them or is on their side.” The Church had both an opportunity and a duty to respond.
“Whatever we may personally feel about the issues, we need to recognise that for many people in poorer communities their vote was cast as a protest against the way life feels for them right now.”
When it felt as if all others had abandoned centres of urban deprivation, the Church must stay. “Let us be the ones who stay and stand alongside, and listen and advocate and feed and clothe and care and advise and support.”
Fenella Cannings-Jurd (Salisbury) said that the Church’s mission to young people and response to Brexit “can’t be disentangled”. Many young people felt a “genuine sense of despair about what the future holds for British and European students. Now more than ever it is important to reach out to young people who are struggling and scared.” The gospel “can and will offer light”.
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that he had heard the result of the vote while on a pilgrimage to Taizé, in France, and had witnessed the “utter shock, sadness, and anger” of the young people he travelled with. “To them it seemed to make no sense at all.”
He warned: “Those who habitually look out for an excuse for xenophobic extremism and racist violence have seized upon this as legitimate — as an encouragement for their activities.” He suggested that the anger evident in the wake of the result could not end until it had been faced, “and it cannot be faced until it has been ‘allowed out’. We have to find ways, not violent ways, of allowing it out.”
He continued: “Even our worst rages may seem only destructive, but are, none the less, indispensable energies needed for the coming Kingdom. . . In ways we cannot yet see, the anger that fuelled the Brexit vote and the anger engendered by it are both energies we need for our future human flourishing. So we had best not calm them too soon.”
The motion as amended was carried nem. con. It read:
That this Synod, recognising the result of the recent referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, commend the work already carried out by the Church in bringing communities together and recommend that as a minimum every bishop identify a champion in their diocese to assess what more the Church could do and to make recommendations for creating stronger and more constructive links between local communities as a basis for achieving this common task, welcomes the Archbishops’ call for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward-looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world, and encourage all members of the Church of England to play their part actively in partnership with everyone in Civil Society in pursuit of this task.