At a moment of national crisis, we must speak up

20 September 2018

The Church should tell people the truth about Brexit, not what they want to hear, says Nick Baines

ONE of the more bizarre elements of the whole debate about the place of the UK in the European Union was (and is) the demand that the Church should keep its mouth shut — unless, of course, the Church agreed with the line that the hearer wanted it to take. That is not a new situation, but one that we shall return to in a little while.

In 2015, I had a long conversation in Stuttgart with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now the President. The occasion now seems prescient: we were waiting backstage for Kofi Annan to arrive for a session that we were addressing at the Kirchentag on the theme “The world has gone mad”.

During the General Election campaign in the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had promised the people a “once-for-all” referendum on EU membership. Herr Steinmeier expressed both surprise and alarm at this. I said to him that I believed we would have a referendum, and that it was possible that we might vote to leave. Our conversation, among other things, wandered around this possibility; his tone was incredulous.

 

IT WAS here that I began to understand the problem. Look through the eyes of Continental Europeans, especially Germans, and the European project looks, smells, and feels different. The EU represents more than simply a political institution that eats up other people’s money and steals their sovereignty when they aren’t looking.

Instead, its institutions look to them like an integral part of a whole European cultural body — one that is diverse, risky, and contentious, but one that is essential to the post-war construction of a peaceful continent. Easy dismissal of it, in the way some Brits were happy to do, looked to many on the Continent like recklessness rooted in wilful amnesia.

I recount that conversation because, for me, it reinforced something I knew but had not reckoned with in sufficient seriousness: language, assumption, and prejudice would shape what was to come more powerfully than reality, facts, or critical sobriety.

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At that point, of course, I assumed that any post-referendum process would be managed with competence, involving experts.

The nature of the language of debate before, during, and since June 2016 demonstrates clearly that the referendum, so unclear in its premise and so illusory in its purpose, gave sanction to rhetoric and abuse that many of us thought belonged to other times or other places. Remainers became Remoaners, Leavers became Liars. “Project Fear” became a slogan intended (or, at least, deployed) to shut down any critical appraisal of the practical consequences of leaving the EU.

 

WHAT was the Church of England to do in these circumstances? The House of Bishops did not drive a particular line in the referendum campaign. Rightly or wrongly, the reason for this was simple: we had put out a document before the 2015 general election in which the EU/Europe featured strongly, and nothing had changed (News, 20 February 2015). Second, the debate around what the bishops had written had not been exactly intelligent. We decided not to say anything new on the grounds that we had already set out our stall.

Several of us, however, did engage in an online initiative set up by Dr Charles Reed in Westminster: a blog, “Reimagining Europe”. This provided a platform for arguments from all sides of the debate. It was intended to foster — and, I think, it succeeded — intelligent debate amid the slanging match of lies, dismissals, and abuse which was already beginning to characterise the campaign.

Our mistake — and it was a common one at that time — was to overlook the fact that the referendum was not the sort of rational debate in which arguments were brought and tested and minds changed. Rather, it was visceral, emotional, and simplistic. Towards the end of 2018, it is clear to all but the blindly determined (on either side) that the referendum was about a lot more than the UK’s place in Europe.

It is not uncommon to hear people who voted to leave insist that they were lodging a complaint against Westminster, or “immigration”, or some other source of grievance or frustration — not necessarily the reality of the EU institutions.

Nor is it unusual to hear some who voted to remain express the view that they could live with a vote to leave if they only knew what it meant in practice. As I tweeted on 24 June 2016, “The people have spoken; we just don’t know what they have said.” Motivations were complex, the debate was facile.

 

AS THE Bishop who leads on Europe for the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, I have had much of the subsequent heavy lifting left to me, supported by colleagues in the Church’s parliamentary unit and Church House. I took the view that, however wrong, misguided, and crazy I thought Brexit was — and would prove to be — the referendum vote should stand. I don’t always like the outcome of a General Election, but we live with it — until we get a chance in due course to choose something different.

My approach in the national debate, particularly in the House of Lords, therefore, was to accept the vote and try to shape the consequences. In other words, if we are going to leave the EU, how can we do it most effectively and maturely so that we leave in the best possible shape for the future?

I still think that this was the most appropriate stance. I turned my attention to the nature of the ongoing debate, the corruption of the public discourse, the fantasy language of the simplistic sloganisers (“Brexit means Brexit” is probably the most obvious), and getting real about the consequences of our collective decision (News, 2 February).

Friends are campaigning for a second referendum; others want the whole thing to go away; still others just accept that our island is going to drift away from everyone else into trade agreements with small countries that will never compensate for what we had with the EU 27. What has not changed is the poverty of the debate: are judges in a democracy really to be called “Enemies of the People”?

 

THIS brings us back to two questions: (a) Should the Church, or its bishops, speak up at a moment of national crisis in a controversial and conflicted matter? And (b) What does it mean to be “prophetic”?

The first is simple: bishops and the Church have a responsibility to speak on controversial matters such as Brexit, whatever might have been the dominant vote in their particular diocese.

I was told in the General Synod that the bishops were out of touch with poor people in the north and should accept their suspicion of immigrants, resentment against established politics, and populist anger. Try suggesting that to bishops in 1930s Germany, or 1970s USSR.

Bishops are called to tell the truth, regardless of what people think they want to hear. We might be wrong, we might be prejudiced, we might be simply misguided; but we must not be silent. We should be unafraid of arguing among ourselves about matters that concern the common good and the future of our world.

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The second question is tied inextricably in with the first. To be prophetic is not to foretell the future, but to speak openly, honestly, and courageously, trying to discern the truth about God, the world and us, and then to articulate this in a way that invites people to look and think differently.

To be prophetic is to advise against action, language, or behaviour that is destructive, even if 100 per cent of the electorate favour it. Equally, it is to speak for what is right and good and constructive, even when destruction colours the popular mood.

 

THIS is where we are now. The vocation for the Church is the same: truth-telling, the courage to change one’s mind (we call it “repentance”), and the maturity to take responsibility for the consequences of the decisions that we make collectively.

For my part, having been involved in the detail of the legislation, and having listened to hours of debate, I can see Brexit turning out only to be bad for the country — especially for the poorest communities — and bad for Europe. The task just now, though, is to articulate hope and minimise the destructiveness of what potentially lies ahead. There is still some way to go before the end (however one defines such a thing) becomes clear.

It seems to me that a hard Brexit is more likely than a soft one: we have neither the time nor the clarity we need to negotiate strongly and competently with the EU 27.

A second referendum is possible, but what question would be posed remains unclear. Even were the electorate to know what Brexit meant in practice, a second binary would not resolve the matter, nor would it heal any divisions. The responsibility of Parliament is to press the arguments, identify the potential consequences of particular scenarios, however unpopular this might be, and work to make the electorate aware of the realities behind the slogans.

At the end of the day, if (to reflect the imagery of the prophets) we go into “exile”, we will still need to keep alive the language of home and sing the songs that defy our new situation. A ministry of reconciliation will not prove comfortable, especially if brokered by Christian leaders who have believed all along that Brexit was unnecessary, destructive, and not in the national interest.

But, until the deal is done — and, after two years, we have little idea of what one might look like, or even if a deal is possible — all is still to be played for. Those who value democracy should not believe that it stopped on 23 June 2016. The debate must continue and arguments must be made: the referendum was a beginning, not the end.

And bishops must be engaged in this, too. It is the most important and serious challenge faced by the UK since the Second World War.

 

WE LIVE in dangerous times. We always do. Democracy is more fragile than anyone thought three years ago, and the world can change very quickly. Over the next few decades, the British will have to define again their identity and their vocation in the world. This process could prove positive and edifying; but it could be destructive and isolating.

The Church is drawn by a gospel that sees God at work in the present circumstances, but works for a better future. It can and must contribute to improving the nature of the discourse and the fostering of mutual respect in the public and private squares. That does not mean that it should be silent. Quite the reverse.
 

The Rt Revd Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.

Listen to Bishop Baines on this week’s Church Times Podcast

 

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