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The Church's identity is naturally European

03 June 2016

Staying in Europe enables the UK to join in fellowship with Churches worldwide, argues John Arnold

AT DIFFERENT times, and for different purposes, St Paul emphasises his identity not only as a Jew, but also as of the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee; not only as a Roman citizen, but also as a Greek-speaker from Tarsus.

These things, however formative and useful they may be, he accounts of little worth compared with being “in Christ”, that is to say, reconciled through the cross to God and to his fellow human beings. He it is, so proud of his multiple identities on earth, who claims that “our citizenship is in heaven.”

The particularities of nation, race, language, party, and citizenship are to be valued, not for the ways in which they cut us off from others, but for their ability to form personalities and characters that are capable of making mature relationships. For Paul, human beings are put in a right relationship with God, not by nation or race, language or culture, gender or social status, but by meeting grace with faith: that is to say, by responding with trust to love.

This does not mean the repudiation of all other relationships, nor does it mean the loss of other identities. It does mean their enlargement and transformation. The implication for contemporary anxieties about identity is that no one should be asked to exchange their identity as British or English for an identity as European. We may, however, rightly acquire or retain not an alternative, but an additional identity as European, rather like Douglas Hurd putting on a Loden overcoat over a Savile Row suit.

This idea can be traced back to the writings of the Venerable Bede, which were remarkable both for the development of English national self-consciousness, and also for his insistence that the destiny of the English was Continental rather than insular. For him, the underlying point at issue at the Synod of Whitby (664) was whether the English, by their adherence to the customs of the Celtic Church, would be condemned to languish for ever in a provincial backwater, or whether, by becoming part of the wider Western Church, they would be integrated into a potentially universal culture and civilisation.

It was not that everything Celtic was wrong, and everything Roman was right — on the contrary, he could not hide his admiration for the piety and effectiveness of St Aidan, St Oswald, and St Cuthbert in Northumbria, compared with the vacillation and tactlessness of St Augustine in Kent.

If the English were to receive the blessings of belonging to a wider world, however, they would need, for example, to adopt a common date for Easter, which was the equivalent then of accepting directives from Brussels now.

Bede, who lived to see the beginnings of the extraordinary contribution paid (or rather repaid) by the English to the continued conversion of Europe by missionaries and scholars such as St Willibrord and, a little later, St Boniface and Alcuin.

This two-way traffic of influence and enrichment, of values and insights, accompanies trade and commerce, and is not less important.

That is why the European Churches (through the Conference of European Churches, and the Roman Catholic Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe) said in the Charta Oecumenica (Strasbourg, Easter 2001): “The Churches support an integration of the European continent. Without common values, unity cannot endure. We are convinced that the spiritual heritage of Christianity contributes an empowering source of inspiration and enrichment for Europe.”

The Charta Oecumenica is clear that the scope of the community is pan-European. It cannot and must not be a reincarnation of Western Christendom or the Holy Roman Empire. Eastern Europe is every bit as European as is Western Europe. Still, an underlying problem remains unsolved; and it is insoluble at the level of politics and economics alone, as can be seen in the dialogue of the deaf with Greece.

Orthodox lands wish to benefit from the financial, social, and political advances of the West, but they have not been on the long march, for good or ill, through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, which made them possible.

The pillars of the European Union — the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and religious freedom — require spiritual and cultural, as well as political and economic, convergence, and mutual understanding. That is where contemporary ecumenism comes in. It also helps to dispel appeals to the Reformation as a reason for separation — although that is another story.

The Reformation was a European movement before it was a national one; and the Church of England now enjoys good relations with the Churches on all sides of that conflict.

Bede was writing before the disastrous schism between East and West in the 11th century, and he wrote appreciatively of the contribution made by Archbishop Theodore (like St Paul, a Greek-speaking citizen of Tarsus) to the establishment in England of structures that have lasted until today.

Bede wanted his fellow countrymen to adopt Roman practices, but he took it for granted that Rome was in communion with Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. For him, integration into Western Christendom did not mean the acceptance of limitation and narrowed loyalties, but, rather, a way of being in communion and fellowship with Eastern Christendom also, and with Churches in Africa and Asia; in a word, with the oikoumene, the whole inhabited world, in so far as it was known in his day.

The Charta Oecumenica goes on to say: “At the same time we must avoid Eurocentricity and heighten Europe’s sense of responsibility for the whole of humanity, particularly for the poor all over the world.”

Great Britain, which retains special links with the United States, and with the worldwide Commonwealth, is well placed both to benefit from a whole-hearted recommitment to the European project, and also to contribute to the development of its vision and values.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is Dean Emeritus of Durham and a former President of the Conference of European Churches.

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