Is Brexit a rerun of the Reformation?

23 November 2018

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“HE THAT goeth about to persuade a multitude, that they are not as well governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favourable hearers. . .” I happened to be reading those opening words from Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity last week, when the draft Brexit agreement was coming seriously unstuck.

Hooker was writing in the 16th century, trying to make a case for the laws of the Established Church. Not a wildly popular cause, you might think, but the Laws is an extraordinary work; a long, tight, and elegant argument for the importance of order and precedent, both in the Church and in public life. Those opening words are testimony to the fact that discontent with the status quo will always resonate more loudly than the quieter voices of caution and compromise.

Hooker possessed the very English instinct that, to flourish, people need to agree to live under the rule of laws and conventions that, although imperfect in themselves, enable civil society to function. What Brexit has called into question is the English capacity for compromise; the readiness to live with what may be far from ideal for the sake of peace. Our politicians are not helping by stirring the current mess for their own ends.

I have wondered in recent days whether Brexit could not be likened to a secular replaying of the quarrels of the English Reformation. Niall Ferguson, writing in The Sunday Times, suggested something like this, placing the British electorate in the role of Henry VIII as he sought the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. I would add that the extreme Brexiteers could represent the wilder Protestants of the Elizabethan era in their readiness to lure the country over the edge with the promise of free grace (we English are not to be bound by others’ laws) and election (we have a historic destiny to fulfil).

Those who are still aghast at the 2016 referendum, and hope for a re-run, could represent the Roman Catholics hoping beyond hope that the country might return to the embrace of Rome. In such a scenario, Theresa May would stand for the orderly Protestantism of Elizabeth I: pragmatic, imperfect, and non-ideological.

The emergent C of E of the Elizabethan era was an establishment job: a fix designed to contain rather than express the deeper passions of the people. Hooker argued that compromise here was not a sell-out but a godly discipline. The laws that established the Church were an expression of the divine laws that permeate the world and answer the human longing for peace and justice. Law understood in this way does not restrict human freedom, but enables it. None of us can be free where there is political or religious anarchy.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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