THE debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union reflects a loss of confidence, and is testing the goodwill of other members who are growing frustrated with it, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said this week.
Speaking on Tuesday, after the Prime Minister’s announcement last Friday that the referendum on EU membership would take place on 23 June, Dr Innes said that he would be “very sad” if the vote favoured Brexit.
“We British inherit a huge stock of goodwill towards us but I am aware that that goodwill is being used up,” Dr Innes said on Wednesday. “At a time when Europe has some huge issues to deal with, people have been a little frustrated that Britain has actually used a huge amount of the time of its leadership in dealing with what seem to some rather small issues that only pertain to one country.”
He was “saddened”, he said, “that the debate seems to reflect a loss of confidence in Britain in dealing with our European compatriots and neighbours. We are a big player. . . I’d like to see us be a leader.”
While backing reform of EU institutions that were “far from perfect”, he urged voters not to underestimate Britain’s influence to date, evidenced by the fact that “whether we like it or not”, the dominant economic model in Europe was neo-liberal enterprise. There was a need to educate people about the “very extensive” links between Britain and other European countries.
While, as a British person in Belgium, he felt “keenly” the “rather shrill language about migrants”, he expressed concern about “white working-class men who fear for their livelihoods”, and suggested that inequality in the UK meant that “those at bottom of society . . . feel that the neglect they have already experienced will be worsened as resources and attention switch to those coming from other countries.”
His desire for Britain to vote in favour of remaining was echoed by other bishops.
“Roots down, walls down. We are European; we have nothing to fear or to lose if we remain so,” the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said on Twitter this week.
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, cautioned against Brexit during a time of “crisis” on the Continent: “Its borders are threatened by uncontrolled migration. Its political structures are threatened by the widespread rise of populism. And, on its Eastern border, it faces growing Russian military power. If the alternative to Europe staying together were to be a return to the competing nationalisms of small states that marked the opening years of the last century we would be entering into very dangerous times.”
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, suggested on Tuesday that, while he did not think that another letter from the Bishops — as issued before the General Election — “would be necessarily helpful”, he felt that “the debate needs to be framed not just in the language of prosperity, but around the kind of society we believe in and what part membership, or not, of the EU might contribute to that vision.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said on Tuesday that the EU had been “integral in delivering seven decades of peace and economic security to Europe and has been behind countless projects and initiatives that have helped the poorest”.
The Bishop of West Yorkshire & the Dales, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, urged readers of his blog to consider a “third way of wanting to stay in (recognising our place in Europe), while being strongly critical of the institution of the EU and working to see it change”.
The referendum date was announced after the conclusion of the Prime Minister’s negotiations with Europe. The package includes an “emergency brake” on migrants’ in-work benefits. It was deemed insufficient by many Conservatives, including members of his own cabinet and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
“It’s regrettable that the country has been plunged into an expensive and needless referendum debate just to resolve the internal squabbles of the Conservative Party,” the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, said on Tuesday.
“David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ is a fig-leaf. He has neither satisfied those who want substantial change in the way the EU operates, nor has he secured any lasting change that will placate those who want the UK to leave. The media aren’t helping. . . I hope that Christians will seek to dig behind the rhetoric and half-truths that will be paraded on both sides of the argument.”
The Church of England has been running a blog on Britain’s place in the EU since September, with contributions from academics, theologians, and clerics. To date, most posts have either been in favour of remaining in the EU, or have avoided settling on one side.
The Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, warned this month of the “near-complete silence of English-speaking political theologians on the EU”. This had “left the present generation of Christians, now tasked with participating in the most important constitutional decision for a generation, theologically under-resourced and inarticulate”.
Many of the Conservatives listed on the website Christians in Parliament are Eurosceptics. It is estimated that 140 Conservative MPs back Brexit.
Andrea Leadsom, a Minister of State at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, who set up the Fresh Start Project, committed to reforming the EU, in 2011, said on Wednesday: "The issue of democracy is certainly tied up in my Christian faith. A bad government must be capable of being removed by democratic vote, and the huge concern I have is that membership of the EU is taking us ever further away from being able to directly control the policy direction that our own democratically elected government believes is in the best interests of the UK."
She went on: "The renegotiation, in spite of the superb efforts of the Prime Minister, highlights to me the unwillingness as well as the inability of the European Union to look critically at its own institutions. . . For the sake of all our children's future, I believe we should take back control of our country, working closely and with great respect with our European neighbours, but no longer caught in the net of an ever encroaching EU bureaucracy."
John Glen, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, said on Wednesday that he had “come to the very reluctant decision” to vote in favour of remaining.
“Theologically, I think the issues are finely balanced,” he said. “Christians have recognised the central place of a nation in political thinking — a cohesive people with a shared bond, history, and language, as being the basis for political action and political loyalty. But Christians also admit the reality of common worldwide humanity — all made in the image of God, interdependence with one another, and morality which is universal in scope — which means we cannot be isolationist and cut ourselves off from international co-operation.”
While Christian loyalty to any temporal political institution “must always be a critical one”, he was conscious of the need to consider the “day-to-day impact” of decisions. “Whilst, under better global economic conditions, our critical loyalty to the EU may stretch to breaking point and point to a future outside it, our current relationship with Europe means that the short-term costs of doing so are prohibitively high — and the concrete cost to individuals and businesses means that I reluctantly support remaining in the EU.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman, said on Wednesday that she too would vote to remain in the EU, although, as a founder of the Conservative Parliamentary Group for Reform in Europe, she understood that the EU "does not best serve interests of the UK within the confines of our current relationship".
She explained: "Through my faith, I believe that reconciling one's differences is important. Forgiveness and acceptance comes with understanding, and I believe that the recent negotiations, led by the Prime Minister in Brussels, have highlighted just how much people in the UK have begun to feel cut off from the EU."
The response to the Prime Minister during the negotiations had shown that the EU was "willing to overcome obstacles, making concessions for our sake and supporting our need for a special status. For those reasons, as well as for the economic and social benefits of remaining in the EU, I believe the new settlement which the Prime Minister has secured, is a good deal for Britain, and is one which can be supported by people from all walks of life."
The vast majority of Labour MPs favour remaining in the EU. The Labour MP for Luton, Gavin Shuker, a former church leader, reflected on Wednesday on walls: "The Pope recently said, in response to Donald Trump’s suggestion that the USA should build a wall to prevent Mexican migrants from travelling to America, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” Yet right here, in our continent, there are those who perpetuate a myth that Britain can build a wall from the rest of Europe and indeed, that it is is our interests.
"The challenges we face must be faced together. The European project helps safeguard our security, works to avoid the kind of conflict we saw in the last century, and is a powerful symbol of solidarity in a world that works to pull communities apart. In my opinion, we are stronger and safer by remaining a member of the European Union."
The International Development Minister, Desmond Swayne, who voted to leave the Common Market in 1975, is in favour of Brexit. “Fundamentally I want to live in an independent country that can reach its own decisions, and control its own borders,” he wrote on a blog this week. “We cannot do so in important respects so long as we remain in the EU.”
On Tuesday, he denied that the debate had a spiritual dimension.
“I know a few cranks who see this as a spiritual question, spiritual warfare even — ‘powers and principalities’,” he said. “Someone even tried to persuade me that the Berlaymont building in Brussels, viewed from above, was a demonic symbol.
“I am confident, however, that there is no religious dimension to the referendum: the Holy Spirit will continue to present us with daily opportunities to preach the gospel on 24 June, whatever the result was.”
Angela Merkel profiled
Question of the week: Should the Bishops campaign for Britain to stay in the EU?