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The battle for the soul of Europe

26 May 2017

Churches have a vital part to play in making the best of Brexit, says Christopher Hill


CLOSE to the ferry port in Dover, a Banksy mural appeared overnight earlier this month, covering most of the wall of an end-of-terrace house. The mural is bright blue with a circle of 12 gold stars. But there is a ladder against the wall and a workman at its top is chipping away one of the stars — chipping away at ourselves.

Banksy does not give us an interpretation of what is happening or where we are going. There is no magic answer to this question, and we now have to learn to live with the pre-Brexit uncertainty of a work­man chipping away at one of the stars.

My second picture is the bust of Robert Schuman, close to the Ber­lay­­­mont, the offices of the Euro­­pean Commission, in Brussels. Schuman was a lawyer, supporter of children and refugees, hunted by the Ge­­stapo, minister of finance, author of the 1950 Schuman Dec­laration, and, undergirding all of this, an ecumen­ical Christian.

He, along with others, pursued a vision of reconciliation after the “apocalypse” of the Second World War in Eur­­ope.


JACQUES DELORS once famously invited the Churches to give Europe a soul. But what is there of that soul in current European political debate — certainly in the United Kingdom — of that vision of post-war recon­ciliation, permanent peace-building, cross-cultural flourishing? At least in the UK — and here we should be deeply penitent — the debate has been either Remain for solely eco­nomic reasons, or Brexit for reasons tantamount to xeno­­phobia.

Penitential analysis is necessary. The UK did not come “into” the European structures at the very be­­gin­ning. We actually joined a Com­mon Market.

Should we have chosen to argue at a deeper level than the market, to argue for struc­tures for prevention of further Euro­pean wars; for politics which would open up rather than close borders; for patterns of inter­national rela­tions which might have coped more adequately and re­­sponded to the collapse of Marxism and the rapid entry into the EU of some but not all the nations of the old Eastern bloc; for European financial constraints which could cope more justly with the economic disparity between northern and southern Europe? And for struc­tures which could have re­­­sponded more humanely to the crisis of migration from the Middle East and North Africa?

My list is not, you will notice, confined to laments about my own country. The EU itself has — as Mr Delors hinted even in 1990 — also failed to be true to its original (and Christian) in­­­spira­tion.

My last picture is one where I am standing on Maria Theresa’s fortress on the Austro-Hun­gar­ian side of the Danube at Novi Sad, in Serbia. The other side was once Turkish, the limit
of the Ottoman Empire. It is in Novi Sad that next year, in June, the Con­ference of Euro­­­pean Churches will hold its Assembly. In a country which is not, not yet anyway, in the European Union.


MY FIRST picture was of the pres­ent confusions and loss of deep vision both here and on the other side of the channel. My second picture was retro­spective, the humane and Chris­tian origins of the European Project.

My last picture reminds me of the Novi Sad agenda of the Churches of Europe — in­­clud­ing, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, with which the Conference of European Churches works, closely represent­ing the Ortho­dox, Orien­tal, Angli­can, Old Catholic, Pro­­testant, and Migrant Churches of all Europe, not simply the EU.

Not that a gathering of any Churches will solve matters or pro­­duce instant panaceas. But if our agenda were also to be the agenda of our member Churches — including the Church of England — then we should indeed be beginning to form a new and transforming vision: the vision found in Isaiah 9.7: a messi­anic vision, a vision of peace, of jus­tice, of righteousness. It is the vision of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in our second reading: a vision in which we do not fear our neighbour but love them: philoxenia rather than xenophobia.

As we work on our Novi Sad agenda, an agenda of Christian wit­ness in today’s confused and centri­fugal Europe, two subtexts emerge: hospitality and justice. Can the Churches of Europe again take up the duty of hospitality, as we did in the aftermath of the Second World War — witness the founding of both Christian Aid and Oxfam?

And justice includes economic justice. Should Greece and Italy bear the full weight of genuine im­­­migra­tion problems, including security, when they are also not the strongest of European economies, as they are doomed to under the Dublin Agreement? And justice can never be separated from peace: what of the Crimea and Ukraine? What price the peace of Europe in the first cen­tury of the Third Millennium?

Christians concerned for Europe and our place therein do not have the vocation or the luxury of simply wringing our hands. We have
now to make the best Brexit we are able.

I suggest that the way to do this is to witness to the profoundly Chris­tian origins of the European project; to remind our fellow Europeans in the EU that Europe is wider than the EU; and to invite our Churches to witness to the profoundly human and Christian virtues of both hospit­ality and justice: “For if you love those who (only) love you, what re­ward have you?”


The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches and a former Bishop of Guildford. This is an edited extract of a sermon preached on 11 May at St Paul’s Cathedral at an evensong to celeb­rate Europe Day.

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