ON THE morning after the referendum on our European Union membership in June, I was trying to respond to the shocked questions of my fellow ecumenical observers at the Orthodox Great and Holy Synod in Crete (Comment, 17 June; News, 24 June).
At an earlier meeting of the board of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), I had warned colleagues from the Continent that the referendum was going to be very close. But my hearers then, from a wide range of Orthodox and Protestant Churches, could hardly imagine that the outcome would be Brexit.
Since the referendum, I have received many emails from all over the Continent and within the UK, not least from Scotland, which could be described as “agonised”.
THE British and Irish Churches have many connections, formal and informal, with a variety of Churches on the Continent.
The Church of England has the Meissen, Porvoo, and Reuilly agreements with the German, Nordic and Baltic, and French Protestant Churches. The Church of Scotland has many links with Reformed and Lutheran Churches, including the Hungarian Reformed Church.
There are many twinnings, pilgrimages, and local links between Roman Catholic and Protestant parishes. These connections are much broader than the EU, and most go back to a time well before the UK joined the EU. So Churches in Britain have a large historical ecumenical investment with the Continental Churches, and they with us.
As time goes on, the Churches in the UK and on the Continent need to reflect on the uncharted territory they are entering. This is not an easy task, as it is clear that many of those who advocated Brexit had no unified plan — still less, vision — about what form it should take.
Hence the conflicting statements and futile arguments about “hard” or “soft” Brexits, and the Government’s unresolved problem of reconciling the, arguably, economically necessary movement of labour, the popular fear of immigration, and the insistence by the EU that the free movement of people and a common market are indissolubly linked.
The Churches, here and in wider Europe, have no desire to oppose the democratically expressed view of the British people. Yet they also have a duty, for the sake of the common good, to try to achieve a better climate for what the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, has wisely called an “intelligent” Brexit.
AS A contribution to such intelligent debate, the “Europe Officers” of the member Churches of the CEC met two weeks ago in Budapest. Although it was an annual meeting, they were joined by other European Christian leaders because of the multiple crises that face Europe as a whole: family and migration issues, secularisation, terrorism, poverty, interfaith relationships, and generational division — as well as Brexit.
There was a strong conviction that, in the light of Brexit, there was a greater need for inter-European church relations to be strengthened. Church-to-Church relations are independent of political or economic arrangements, and should be especially encouraged when emergent political and nationalistic divisions in Europe are rife in a way that they have not been for decades.
The language of Cold War, or even Hot War, is heard again, a quarter of a century after the end of the Soviet Union. Russian ships pass through the English Channel for the Mediterranean. The Ukraine remains divided. The original vision for the unity of Europe, after the cataclysm of the Second World War, was based on common values of Christian inspiration for the securing of a permanent peace.
The British Churches then were articulate in their support for closer unity in Europe, perhaps because leaders such as Archbishop Runcie had fought in the Second World War, and been engaged in reconciliation in Germany afterwards. While there can be different economic and political approaches to achieving common values, these differences must not lead to a breakdown in relationships.
AT THE Budapest meeting, there was also a desire from our Continental partners to hear more from the British and Irish Churches. Why were the English Churches less politically engaged in the pre-referendum debates? It was noted that the Scottish Churches had been more vocal than those in England — no doubt reflecting the very different referendum results in the two nations.
Action of Churches Together in Scotland is planning to take up an initiative supported by CEC in the New Year to assess where the Churches are, and representatives of the Continental Churches will attend the planned conference.
A serious fear was voiced from Northern Ireland about the consequences if an outer border with the EU divided the island, like an echo from the past.
The peace-making and reconciliation process between North and South in Ireland has been greatly facilitated by the fact that both the UK and Eire are part of the EU. What now?
The CEC was founded in the days of the Cold War divisions of Europe. As new divisions break out — not just those of Brexit — the Churches’ vocation must be to strengthen relations between Christians across the new divides, and to maintain a vision for the peace and common good of a multicultural and multifaith Europe — whatever the political and economic structures that emerge.
The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches, and a former Bishop of Guildford.