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Are the Bishops really listening to Leavers?  

20 September 2019

Impugning the integrity and understanding of people who voted for Brexit will not aid reconciliation, says Sam Norton

TWO things are essential for a fully Christian contribution to our Brexit conversation. First, the quality of our listening: if we listen simply so as to understand the position of another to our own satisfaction, then we have failed to charitably engage with the other.

Fully Christian listening means not only that we understand the position of the other to our satisfaction, but also to their satisfaction, enabling the other to feel valued. It is only on that basis of being valued that the groundwork of mutual trust necessary for reconciliation can be built.

Second, Christians must step away from a spirit of accusation. This can be difficult — I find it difficult — but when Christians are at their best, they recognise that the making of accusations serves only the interests of our enemy, and gives him a foothold. In the context of shared failure, the Christian call is to help antagonistic parties recognise the truth of a situation — and, from that recognition of the truth, become free for the restoration of relationship.


IN THIS context, I would like to offer two specific responses to the recent open letter from 25 diocesan bishops outlining their concerns about a potential “no-deal” Brexit (News, 30 August).

The bishops write: “The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit . . .” One way in which power is experienced as abusive is when those with power (such as a bishop) say to those without power (a normal voter) that the voter does not know what he or she really wants. To say that there is something that “lies behind the vote for Brexit” is to disparage the desire for Brexit in and of itself, and thus is an exercise in disempowerment.

Leavers have become accustomed to being slighted in this way, to having their understanding and integrity impugned, to being told that we voted for Brexit only because of X, and, if those in power solved X, well, we don’t need Brexit any more, do we? This is not the product of genuine listening: it is the imputation of false consciousness and a rather un-Anglican attempt to “make windows into men’s souls”. It is essential that, if there is to be a reconciliation between the different sides on Brexit, such language is abandoned.

The bishops also write: “The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English,” and “Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness.” Here, there appears to be a spirit of accusation present in the letter, and it is “the English” who are being accused.

We desperately need a theologically informed conversation about the nature of Englishness, and the place of England and the other nations within our one United Kingdom. But to say that “the English” are treating peace in Ireland as a ball to be kicked is neither constructive nor charitable. Are all English included in the accusation, or is it just English people who voted Leave? Or just “no-dealers”? What about people in other nations of the UK who voted Leave or support no-deal: are the bishops exercising some sort of ethnic exemption clause? This sort of language must be subjected to a thorough theological critique and used with caution, if the intention for reconciliation is sincere.

Christians know that they cannot serve both God and Mammon. One corollary of this is that, when seeking the truth about Brexit, we cannot just use the categories of Mammon in seeking to discern God’s will. To reduce the question of Brexit to the economic debate, and to reduce the impact of a Brexit upon the poor simply to potential losses of income, is to offer a diminished and effectively atheological analysis.

The Church must truly listen to the poor, taking their choices seriously and affording them the dignity of accepting that they own their judgements. Those in positions of privilege do not have the right to reflexively second-guess the votes of the poor, or to speculate on their motives.


I TREMBLE to ask this question: does the House of Bishops simply lack the theological heft needed to engage with this topic of national identity at a spiritual level? I do not mean to cause offence; rather, I seek a fuller, more candid, and more explicitly Christian conversation than seems possible on the basis of the bishops’ letter.

In that spirit, I shall continue, sincerely, to pray for all in our House of Bishops, and especially for the Archbishop of Canterbury, on whom I expect — and hope — will fall the burden of working out national reconciliation in the years to come.


The Revd Sam Norton is Vicar of Parkend and Viney Hill and assistant diocesan director of ordinands for the diocese of Gloucester. He has been selected to stand for the Brexit Party at the next General Election (News, 9 August).

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