AS UNCERTAINTY continued this week about the next stage of Brexit, bishops criticised the Government’s handling of the process.
On Tuesday, the House of Commons gave preliminary approval to the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, but then voted against the Government’s proposal to fast-track the legislative process to enable the UK to leave the European Union by 31 October.
At the time of going to press, the EU Commission had not replied to a request from the Government for an extension to the Brexit deadline — something that the Prime Minister told them would be a mistake, in a second letter issued on Saturday.
When asked to approve the contents of Mr Johnson’s new deal last Saturday — the first time in 37 years that Parliament had sat on a Saturday — the Commons instead voted in favour of the amendment moved by the Conservative MP Oliver Letwin to withhold final approval of the deal until detailed legislation — the Withdrawal Agreement Bill — was passed.
The vote was welcomed by the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes. He told Radio 4’s Sunday programme that Parliament had re-emphasised its opposition to a No Deal Brexit, which would be “the worst possible outcome”. One British retiree in France had told him that it would be “catastrophic” for them, and told him to “plead our cause”.
As MPs debated Mr Johnson’s deal to pull the UK out of the EU last Saturday, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke in the House of Lords on the Brexit deal. The UK’s relationship with the EU had been shaped by “gross misrepresentation” — including that wrought by the Prime Minister — he said.
It was late in the day, Bishop Baines suggested, to heed calls for reconciliation made by the Church years ago. “Trust cannot be commanded, even by a Prime Minister. It has to be earned,” he warned.
He continued: “We have been told lies, and there has been gross misrepresentation, including from the current Prime Minister when he was a journalist in Brussels. Propagated through the media, these lies have been allowed to go on, and have formed the way that we see and understand Europe, ourselves, and our role. That raises a question about trust.”
REUTERSThe Prime Minster speaks in the House of Commons on Tuesday
A political culture of “Divide and rule” had developed, he said. “It is all very well hearing now that we need to pull all the different parties and elements in both Houses together to find a way forward,” he said. “Some of us were asking for that three years ago, two years ago, and a year ago, and it was dismissed. It was a zero-sum game of ‘winner takes all’.”
People had also been subjected to “repeated slogans and oversimplification. . . We know, and I think we should learn, that slogans are more effective and powerful than reasoned fact or argument.”
Throughout, the UK’s global reputation had suffered, Bishop Baines said: “What we learn from history is that we need humility instead of hubris.”
As Parliament sat last Saturday, a “People’s Vote” march took place in central London, attended by up to one million people, organisers said. Among them was the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, who wrote on Twitter: “On Piccadilly, marching for a Final Say.”
She also wrote: “If the new deal is so much better than either TM’s [Theresa May’s] deal or the one we’ve got, it will withstand proper scrutiny and a #PeoplesVote. We’re deciding the future of the United Kingdom, not the takeaway order.” She expressed agreement with a tweet arguing that “nothing is better than the arrangements we already had with the EU.”
Dr Innes also spoke in support of the marchers: “I’m with the crowds outside Parliament in London demonstrating in favour of a Final Say”, he told the BBC.
In a letter to all licensed ministers, churchwardens, and head teachers in his diocese on Monday, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that the UK was “experiencing a very great trauma on a political, constitutional and social level”.
“Our calling as Christian ministers is great at this time, and will be so in the years ahead, for the scars of this trauma will take long to heal,” he wrote. “We are ministers of the gospel — the gospel of reconciliation. . .
“Our first task is to pray, and to do so urgently, especially at this time for our politicians, for their protection and their wisdom, and all who hold positions in national life.”
Dr Cocksworth repeated the assertion made in the recent College of Bishops statement that the result of the referendum should be “honoured” (News, 4 October).
“The Churches — including of course the Church of England — are made up of people of a range of views on this matter, and that needs to be respected and the different Christian reasoning recognised,” he said.
His own view was that “Britain’s best future and its best opportunity to bring good to the world lies in its continuing membership of the EU.” He could not support a revocation of Article 50, but could back “a confirmatory referendum on the deal negotiated with the EU that also allows those who want to remain in the EU to express their view.
“That would seem to me to be an honourable resolution to the impasse facing our nation, though it is not one for which I feel at liberty to campaign as a bishop.”
He went on to outline a number of principles that, were Britain to depart, should govern its future relationship with the EU, including “that the poor must not suffer the short- or long-term effects of our departure”; that “we use the new position of the UK as an opportunity to work for greater justice in our economic systems”; and that “peace is prioritised always”.
The three Bishops in the diocese of Exeter have also written a letter to their diocese.
“Our role as church leaders in this situation is not to take sides,” they wrote, on Thursday of last week. “The Church of England must continue to be the Church for everyone. There are leavers and remainers in every congregation in Devon; but as Christians we are united by our shared responsibility to work for the common good and to promote a culture of mutual respect.”
The letter went on to warn that foodbanks were likely to “come under additional strain” and that a no-deal Brexit could lead to temporary shortages of some food and a rise in prices. In addition to donating to these stocks, people should also “reach out hands of friendship to any EU nationals in our neighbourhoods, including groups of migrant or seasonal workers on our farms”.
The letter included links to support services for farmers and their families. The fishing community, “where traditionally wages are low and the work dangerous” was facing uncertainty over quotas, export, and rules about access to fishing grounds.
Read more on the story in our leader comment, and from Paul Vallely