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Brexit and the search for settled community    

29 March 2018

The Church has a vital part to play in healing the divisions that the referendum exposed, says Anna Rowlands

NOT long ago, I spent a Sunday evening giving a talk in a pub in Sunderland. It wasn’t a talk on Brexit, but, rather, on the core issue that coursed through the veins of the Brexit debate: migration.

A middle-aged working-class man, who had listened intently to every word of my talk, afterwards presented the following case: “What’s wrong with accepting migration is that these migrants are all religious, and mainly Muslim. . . Muslims disapprove of us and of our way of life. . . My Muslim co-worker won’t drink with me, won’t do what men around here have always done. It’s a way of judging us. I want to live in a real community that works hard and knows its neighbour, where we look out for each other. . . But I can’t do that with people who are really different from me, with whom I have nothing in common.”

My Sunderland interlocutor finds his views echoed in much of the Brexit debate. The institutions that were meant to guarantee our common bonds, to ground our common life, and to foster a decent life for communities like ours have broken, or proved themselves false and fair-weather friends. Migration (real and fictional/anticipated) is indigestible. There is mourning for the loss of “settled” community.

And so the last utopia for many is not human rights, but the nation-state. In the face of precarity and the erosion of communities, the protector of the local and the fragile becomes the national: the nation-state as a vehicle for memory and aspiration.

In the face of this kind of political emotion, the lacklustre Remain campaign focused on jobs and economic security, but it did not connect or inspire with a robust vision of the good; nor did it name the humiliation and dehumanisation that many feel, and seek to explain how a genu­ine European Union could take this up into its own political core and offer new forms of participation.


BUT we make a huge error of judgement if we suppose that these conversations are motivated only by loss or suffering, or by a politics of fear or hate. This is to miss at our peril the palpable sense of aspiration addressed by my Sunderland interlocutor, and many others like him, for certain kinds of common goods — an orientation towards the good of living in a community of people with faces and names, of the desire for a kind of common protective humanity that many now middle-aged working-class communities did not experience in their childhood encounter with religious institutions.

And so any credible Christian theological response that desires to resist and overcome the binary Manichaean logic of good and evil so prevalent in our culture needs to handle the presence of a felt sense of both loss and aspiration, suspicion and resilience, betrayal and pride; as Augustine might say — ad permixtum. The fault lines of the referendum result run through the human heart, not simply between classes and communities. A Christian metaphysics requires us to handle the complexity of these mixed-up motivations with care.

Pope Francis astutely and disconcertingly notes that a culture in which compassion is absent from politics — for all, not just for our various preferred characters — more likely than not has first experienced a failure of civil society and its intermediate bodies.

We stop being properly human with each other in and between our localities first, and then we find that we cannot sustain communities of welcome for more distant neighbours whose very lives depend on it. Brittle and exhausted democracy, a lack of political resilience, a struggle to grasp and respond decisively and with leadership to the duty to near and distant neighbour, the difficulty of talking about the goods rather than interests we want our politics to pursue: all this becomes the thin soup sustaining a weak body politic.

To be clear: there are good reasons for those who voted Remain to grieve, for there are tangible goods that will be lost, and it is unclear that we have political mechanisms in place right now to secure our common well-being. But that grief must retain its attachment to its real object: the pursuit of the life of the common good. Our divisions are publicly exposed.


THERE must now be a genuine process of listening beyond silos — and, make no mistake, this will be deeply unsettling. What and who (who on earth?) will enable us to recognise the devastation of our political culture — a devastation many years in the making — but do so in such a way that we are also able to recognise the fragile possibility of the new political community that might already be buried alive underneath the rubble? This is ground that a new generation of political and church/religious leaders must speak to: leaders that we are calling forth from where, and how?

In the pub in Sunderland, no great settlement was agreed, no revolution in thought occurred, but at the initiative of a local church stepping beyond its settled ground, a community with firmly held and very different views on immigration was briefly, for a few hours, in fruitful dialogue with itself: a dialogue that was not for its own sake alone in response to the need to discern duties to global neighbours in urgent need.

We need not only new leaders and a commitment to processes of robust, open-hearted dialogue, but also new spaces of civic encounter — new ways to address my interlocutor’s question: when money is scarce and civic institutions are largely gone or viewed as irrelevant, where (rather than how) do we form bonds of affection and a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicities, and faiths?


This is an edited extract from Who is my Neighbour: The global and personal challenge, edited by Richard Carter and Sam Wells (SPCK, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-0-281-07840-0). Reproduced by kind permission of SPCK. www.spck.org.uk

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