TWO rival campaigns have been established to persuade Christians how to vote in the EU referendum.
Christians for Britain has been set up by Canon Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Newington, in south London, a former canon at St Paul’s Cathedral and Church Times columnist, and Adrian Hilton, who runs the blog Archbishop Cranmer, to urge a “Leave” vote on 23 June.
Shortly after it came into being, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, who retired as Dean of Durham last year, established a group, Christians for the EU, to urge a vote to “Remain”.
Both organisations are, at present, little more than websites and social-media accounts, but they intend to hold public meetings and debates in the build-up to the referendum in June.
Mr Sadgrove said that he was glad that Canon Fraser and Mr Hilton were articulating a Christian argument to vote to leave, and was keen to make the opposite case.
“I think there is a need for more than one Christian voice, because we are as divided as the rest of the population. It’s a way of getting Christians talking to one another about what is going to be the most significant vote we will cast in a generation.”
Mr Hilton said that plans were already in place for a debate between the two campaigns, which would probably take place in Westminster nearer the date of the referendum.
“It would be all in good Christian love and wholesome disagreement,” he said, “as clearly there is a need for Christians to be informed.” Christians for Britain have already been asked to speak at churches and hustings.
It was important that the EU debate should not become bogged down in discussions of economics and national security and ignore the spiritual side, Mr Hilton said.
“It’s not simply a matter of money or security. It is fundamentally more important than economics: as Giles has said, even if we are poorer, we don’t sell our democracy for money.”
On this point, Mr Sadgrove said he totally agreed. “I think it’s really important to be principled about this. Let’s hope we don’t fall for the usual clichés about what is best for Britain. Ask not what the Union can do for you — ask what you can do for the Union.”
When asked to sum up the Christian case for staying in, he replied that it revolved around the second commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself.
“I think life is meant to be lived together in partnerships and collaboration. To walk away from an institution that was set up to pursue those ideals is a big mistake.
“Link that with the Genesis principle that it is not good for a man or a woman to be alone. The EU is very much not perfect, but the essential ideal and aim is still valuable. The world needs nation states to be grouped together in alliances that will be good for the human race.”
Asked the same question, Mr Hilton also looked to Genesis. His argument was focused on “the need for the negation of evil through the dispersal of power”.
“If the Tower of Babel teaches us anything, it is, when man tries to control too much and usurp the power of God then God disperses them,” he said. “Government that is centralised tends towards corruption: that is the history of human nature.
“The biblical pattern is not always for agglomeration of power. God also divides in order that powers would be controlled.”
Mr Sadgrove, who acknowledged that he was attached to the EU because of his German-Jewish mother, who was a refugee during the war, said that he was looking for prominent Christians who would lend their names to his pro-EU campaign.
The Church could play its part by creating opportunities for Christians to discuss and reflect, he said.
The Church of Scotland has come out in favour of voting Remain in June, but most other Churches, including the C of E, have not expressed a preference.
Mr Hilton, however, was critical of the C of E for saying that it was neutral.
“There are about five or six bishops who have now voiced their opinions on this, and it is all to stay in,” he said [News, 26 February]. “If all the bishops are saying they are for in, then the C of E clearly isn’t neutral. I’m all for Christian leaders’ engaging in politics, and voicing their opinions, but they need to be open to debating these points.”
Priest accused of EU bias. A priest in Dudley, Canon Andrew Wickens, has been criticised by Conservative and UKIP councillors after he prefaced his prayers at a council meeting with a call not to foster anti-European feeling during the referendum campaign.
Canon Wickens, who is Team Vicar of Dudley and chaplain to the Mayor, was giving a short reflection before beginning prayers last week, when he was interrupted by a Conservative councillor, Chris Elcock, who asked why they couldn’t just say the Lord’s Prayer.
Having first cautioned against dismissing those opposed to the EU as xenophobic, Canon Wickens said that those advocating leaving should be careful not to “stoke anti-European sentiment”, or bring migrants into the debate.
After Mr Elcock’s interruption, Canon Wickens completed his reflection, and led the councillors in prayer. After the meeting, the newspaper Express and Star reported that a UKIP councillor and MEP, Bill Etheridge, had demanded that Canon Wickens be banned from future meetings.
“To bring politics into prayer is totally inexcusable, and to dominate his service on the EU I believe was an abuse of his position. The service was utterly appalling. I have never been so disgusted during a council meeting,” he was reported as saying.
Canon Wickens told the Express and Star later that, if his words had offended anyone, he regretted it, as that had not bee his intention.