From one of ‘us’ to one of ‘them’

by
21 September 2018

Since the Brexit vote, Carla Vicencio Prior, a Portuguese national and a priest, has been in a state of limbo, lacking support from the Church of England, she says

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I WOKE up on 24 June 2016 full of expectation for the future. After a lengthy period of discernment, years of theological training, and a year into my curacy, I was to be priested. It was also, by coincidence, the day that the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was announced.

I had not been entitled to vote in the referendum because I am Portuguese, although I have lived in the UK for more than 30 years, am married to an Englishman, and have two British children.

When I turned on the news and saw that Leave had won, it felt like a physical punch to the stomach. I felt let down, unwanted, and betrayed by a country to which I had dedicated 30 years of my life. At the same time, I told myself that I was being irrational, that this was an overreaction. After all, people who voted Leave were not rejecting me personally. After all, people who voted Leave weren’t rejecting me personally.

Two hours after hearing the result, I was in front of my bishop and a formally bewigged notary, swearing my oath of allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and being ordained a priest in the Church of England.

Like everyone else, my identity has been shaped by many factors, such as my faith, my nationality, my social and economic status, and my education. That identity was further developed and deepened on 24 June 2016 by my becoming a priest.

In parallel to my experiences that day, the UK also seemed to be reshaping its identity in terms of what it means to be a sovereign nation among the complexities of a post-modern, interconnected world. England’s inner struggle for identity and expression was having an impact on my own identity. My previously secure sense of self was being disturbed. For the first time in 30 years, I felt as if I had become one of “them”, when for so long I had been one of “us”.

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It seemed to me that my status as an immigrant, which had, until then, never been a particularly conscious part of my life, had been somehow forcibly re-imposed on me in a public way, and it added a layer of separation which I had not felt so acutely before.

After 24 June, I was placed in a limbo state of not being “us” enough (i.e. being recognised as not being British), but, at the same time, of not being “foreign” enough: I was told openly by people that they had voted to Leave solely on the basis of a fear of immigration, but that by “immigrant” they didn’t mean me. It slowly dawned on me that the reason for my voicelessness was that my small identity crisis was being drowned out by the noise of the bigger battle that was raging alongside it for national identity recognition.

 

THE referendum split the country down many divisive lines — age (young versus old); political (liberal left versus UKIP right); economic (rich versus poor); nationality (local versus immigrant) — but, above all, it seems to me, by class.

The Leave result made the voices that had usually been silenced – the voices of often white, working-class people who were living in areas of economic deprivation – loud and clear. In short, the Leave result appeared to be the voice of the people I had been ministering among over the previous year.

Traditionally, there has always been a strong national narrative that is mostly controlled by a middle-class perspective, a perspective that requires the working class as a counterpoint. Classes exist only in relation to each other. So, middle-class identities are created by looking down on the working classes, which “produce[s] a middle-class existence that is silently marked as normal and desirable”, the sociologist Steph Lawler argues. The portrayal of an ignorant working class, apart from going unquestioned, is often used as a way of “produc[ing] middle-class identities that rely on not being the . . . ‘other’”.

Where the middle-classes — whose lives are less threatened by globalisation — seem to be identifying with the foreigner immigrant as a way of rejecting the other who is working class (who may be a compatriot but who represents the antithesis of their own class), the working classes may be creating identities that are strongly based on a nationalistic status, as a way of differentiating from the other (who may be working class but is foreign).

Unfortunately, what happens when a nation’s sense of identity becomes so diluted that it can imagine itself only as “not the other” is a generalised national identity crisis. And the rhetoric over the past few years reflects this.

The traditional national identity narrative was severely disrupted by the referendum result, and the still dominant middle class now have to adapt to the political will of a no-longer-silent working class. On the other hand, the working classes who are being marginalised by globalisation are also living in fear of a weakened identity.

This has meant that immigrants have become the perfect “tool” to use, by both sides, in building some sense of national identity. That makes the immigrant’s lot a hard one — even a privileged immigrant like myself. Since the referendum result, the general hostile environment towards immigration has been felt by all of us who are immigrants; this has ranged from a sense of a dilution of our uniqueness (and often our strength), which is our “otherness”, to outright xenophobic abuse.

This has a truly negative impact on our own immigrant self-definition, and therefore our contribution to the UK; for, if we are no longer free to be truly who we are, without having constantly to be a counter-mirror to a national intra-class fight for identity, then we are only half ourselves. We are diminished as individuals, through no fault of our own.

As the theologian Susanna Snyder puts it: “Immigrants often find themselves caught in the crossfire of conflicts that have very little to do with them. They simply happen to embody elements of the groups or issues deemed problematic.”

 

WHAT part should the Church play in engaging with these parties — middle-class and working-class — who are struggling to self-define? The Church has a responsibility to lead by example and counter a formation of identity which is based on unacceptable “anti-other” platforms (platforms that are racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and so on).

But it also has a responsibility to strengthen a positive sense of British (but particularly English) identity which is diverse in race, belief, and even class. Without a strong positive national identity, identity formation risks becoming rooted solely in not being “other”.

The Church has a prophetic duty to give the weak a voice. Migrants like me (middle-class, educated, employed, white, and so on) may not look like the weak, but we have been living in limbo since the referendum, unsure what and where our future will be. The political confusion that is being wrought by a mixture of indecision and naïvety during the post-Brexit negotiations with the EU has left most European citizens who live in the UK feeling, as Elena Remigi says, “sad, disappointed, worried, angry, and betrayed”.

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I acknowledge that the Church is in a difficult position: it is hard to lobby and advocate in a situation that seems to be governed by such a divisive, binary division of opinion. But the Church’s reaction to our plight has been muted, at best. As an immigrant, I would love not to be used as bargaining chip, or as counter-mirror to a national intra-class fight for identity. I would love to be accepted in the fullness of my otherness: as a fellow human being, worker, parent, colleague, friend, neighbour, priest, child of God.

The Revd Carla Vicencio Prior has served for the past three years an ex-industrial parish in Derbyshire. She is currently the Assistant Curate of Derby Cathedral. A longer version of this article was published in Crucible.

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