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Angela Tilby: The nation is divided into two tribes

11 May 2018


I HAVE been reflecting recently on Brexit and the Church’s mission with the help of David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere (Hurst, Books, 26 May 2017).

Goodhart is a left-leaning political writer who has been pointing out for years that large numbers of working-class and lower-middle-class voters do not identify with the liberal values prevalent in the media, academia, and the mainstream political parties.

He suggests that the EU ref­er­endum revealed that British society is divided into two “tribes”: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. Anywheres base their sense of identity on their achievements. They tend to be graduates, to live in cities, and to be comfortable with immigration. Often they have benefited from the economic liberalism of recent years.

Somewheres identify more with place and background (Essex girl, Geordie born and bred). Economic liberalism has disadvantaged them, but they are even more distressed about the loss of a sense of community and roots, which, for some, includes a sense of belonging, however loosely, to the Protestant faith. Brexit night was the moment when the Somewheres made their voice heard.

For six months after Brexit, I heard a number of indignant sermons about the referendum. (I probably gave one or two myself). Many clergy are Anywheres: they live from an achieved identity; they are com­fortable with moving around; they are liberal on immigration. They are out of touch with the Somewheres, with their sense of British­ness and their vague Protestantism.

I freely confess to being a natural Anywhere. I deeply regret Brexit, and I am a reluctant Protestant. But I recognise a sense of betrayal among those who voted to leave Europe. On a deeper level, I wonder what the Spirit is saying to our Churches and society through the manifestation of our two “tribes”.

I have no answer to that, but I have been haunted by an image that I cannot get out of my mind. It is of John Paul II on his visit to Poland in 1979. On the eve of Pentecost, he preached a powerful sermon in Victory Square, Warsaw, in which he spoke of the importance of culture in forming the human person.

At the end, he invoked the Spirit in the traditional words: “Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth,” and then, striking the ground with his papal staff, he added: “this earth”.

The meaning was clear. It was a challenge to his fellow Poles to reassert their Christian identity. The Pope’s action was later seen by some as one of the triggers that led to the unravelling of Soviet Communism.

What has stayed with me is the appreciation that questions of identity and culture are spiritual questions. There is something important when St Luke says in Acts that the Pentecost preaching was heard by all “in their native tongue”.

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