THE REFERENDUM debate has been a divisive, brutal, dehumanising, victimising, bitter experience, and at times not even a debate; but now that the campaign is over, the UK must learn from its mistakes, and move towards reconciliation and healing within communities, church voices across the UK have said.
Primates, bishops, archdeacons, chaplains, and academics made their views clear this week on how the country — its people and Government — had conducted themselves throughout the campaign, and on what the next step should be both for the Church and communities across the UK.
The referendum debate had “unleashed a kind of monster” of extremes, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan said. The public attitude, and language used, had been “venomous and offensive”, and risked spreading “from words to actions”, such as the recent rioting at the Euros (News, 17 June).
The risk was particularly high on immigration, Dr Morgan said in an interview with the Western Mail this week. “There’s been so much venom spoken about immigrants and immigration that people have come to believe almost anything. People have jumped in on the immigration issue, forgetting that whether we stay or whether we leave will make no difference to 50 per cent of the immigrants of this country. . .
“Quite reasonable, rational people get really hot under the collar about immigration, forgetting that our health service would collapse without it, and that many of the immigrants are in fact holding excellent jobs as doctors, consultants and academics.”
In the south west, however, immigration had not been such a “hot potato”, the Archdeacon of Taunton, the Ven. John Reed, said: there were fewer migrant communities in the region. Farmers were divided on the future of agriculture in or out of the EU, but not maliciously.
“Where we hit the buttons in the south-west is badger-culling and hunting; those are issues where people do have difficulty. But when it comes to Europe and party politics, they are far more accepting of difference.”
He had seen confusion about how to vote; but his concern was that people in the UK were “afraid to look at the past 100 years and recall that Europe, before then, was in a state of war for 2000 years at least, as they prayed for a united Europe. It might stay united, but I think Britain needs to make its full contribution.”
The Chaplain of Liverpool University, the Revd Ryan Cook, agreed that the most common reactions to a “somewhat grievous” debate had been confusion and weariness. “There is a great deal of uncertainty and fragility,” he said on Tuesday. “The arguments for or against leaving the EU seemed unclear; many people felt paralysed by the sheer volume of information, the conflicting nature of that information, and the magnitude of the consequences.”
It had divided communities, his students, and even the clergy. “In many ways it has brought out the worst in people, although there are definitely glimmers of kindness and solidarity in the midst of tension,” he said. “Arguments were often reduced to ad hominem attacks, which is nothing less than dehumanising.”
Healing must come next. “We are a people of reconciliation; so in the midst of such a fractured political climate, the Church will have the opportunity to call people to solidarity and hope. At its best the Church is a people of peace-making and bridge building.
“Our job now is to go back to our communities to work for the poor, bring people together, heal rifts, and transcend the alienating rhetoric that has been so front and centre in this conversation.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that, although he hoped for “a national conversation that would touch on a far wider range of issues”, including immigration, “I am left struggling to see where and how that conversation can happen when there is such an atmosphere of resentment and anger on all sides. . . Instead we have had relentless negativity in which even the phrase ‘politics of fear’ has fed the politics of fear.”
It was “hard to criticise the quality of the debate because there hasn’t really been a debate”, he said. Rather, “one side has shouted about the economy, the other side has shouted about immigration, and there has been very little common ground in which reasoned discussion has taken place.”
The Rural Dean of Middlesbrough, the Revd Dominic Black, said that his community had been “deeply enriched” by immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, who had been attracted to the area by cheaper private renting. “The vibrant faith of immigrants has renewed our Church,” he said, “but sadly this positive attitude is not reflected in our wider community.”
Further north, in the diocese of Newcastle, the tone of the referendum had been “deeply disappointing, even disturbing”, the Archdeacon of Northumberland, the Ven. Geoff Miller, said, “not merely because of the confused information, personal attacks, and sheer vitriol, but primarily for the dehumanising way it has regarded some people, demonising vulnerable people, and stigmatising them as a problem or the cause of our problems.”
The way forward was to “pick ourselves up and redefine our common humanity”, he said. “It will take some nimble hard work, plenty of forgiveness, and a good dose of grace to move us forward together.”
But the Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, the Ven. Peter Robinson, said that parishes in the North-East were concerned at how this healing would be achieved after such robust debate. “From a borders perspective, we are mindful of potential impacts of a Leave decision on our relationship with Scotland, and whether this will force a parting of the ways,” he said. “Living with so many uncertainties has been hard, and especially potentially reopening the pain of the question of Scottish independence.
“I have been constantly surprised during the campaign how little has been heard about the founding values and hopes of the Union, and struck by the narrowness and self-centred nature of the final contributions to the debate.”
Though the debate had been calmer, and the post-referendum picture was less consequential in Scotland, its future with England was also a concern, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, said.
“The passions which the referendum debate have stirred in England have been largely absent in Scotland,” he said. There was, however, “a feeling that the issue of Scotland’s long-term future as part of the UK may be profoundly affected by the outcome of the referendum. It is a disappointment that there seems to be almost no awareness of that potential impact on the future of the UK.”
In the diocese of London, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, expressed a fear of what the referendum had revealed. “We are living in a deeply divided society.”
People were inhabiting different universes, he said. “The view from my episcopal area in international and multicultural London is obviously not that of some of the more Eurosceptic parts of the country.”
The Church was ideally placed to bring healing. “We are by definition multi-generational and multi-national and -cultural in theory. . . We can model that and live that.” In the public realm, “we have to prevent fear of the other tipping over into racism, to help the narrative of Britishness become more diverse in tone, to begin to include those who feel excluded.”
He prayed for the victors in the referendum to be magnanimous.
The main problem lay in the unpopularity and distrust of MPs in Westminster — a fault brought into sharp relief by the murder of Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, (News, 20 June), who was, in contrast, admired as “deeply committed to justice and campaigning for a better world”.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, reflecting in his diocesan synod, on Saturday, on the death of Mrs Cox, said: “She was a politician who gives the lie to the increasingly fashionable view that public servants in general and politicians in particular, are only in it for themselves; that they want power for its own sake, or the status it brings, but have little idea of what to do with it.”
On the EU, “the arguments on both sides have been too narrow, too exaggerated, too spiteful. . . but what happened [to Mrs Cox] on Thursday brings to the fore another question: what sort of nation do we want to be. . ? And what can the Church do to bring reconciliation?”
The answer, he said, was to “put Britain first by taking hold of the values and beliefs which make Britain great, that is those values and beliefs that we see in Jesus Christ” and on which the culture and politics of the nation had been founded.
Professor Grace Davie, of the University of Exeter, a sociologist of religion, said that the referendum had been a “depressing experience”.
Professor Davie was one of six signatories to a letter in The Times, last week, which maintained that “Europe matters to a world needing solidarity, peace, social justice and care for the environment. It would be irresponsible to walk away.” Other signatories included the Dean of Coventry, the Very Revd John Witcombe.
“I am appalled at the shrillness of the tone,” she said this week, “the exaggerated claims and counter-claims, the disregard for facts, and the refusal to take ‘experts’ for what they are.”