THE Archbishop of Canterbury has agreed to chair a citizens’ forum to discuss Brexit and national reconciliation — on condition that the talks are not “a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form”.
Archbishop Welby was responding on Tuesday to a request from six cross-party MPs: the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman; Frank Field; Hilary Benn; Yvette Cooper; Norman Lamb; and Angus MacNeil.
They write: “Given the polarisation we have all experienced across the UK and in Parliament, we believe that a Citizens’ Forum on Brexit would be an opportunity to consider how to deal with divisions in our country since the Brexit referendum. We are writing to ask whether you would be willing to oversee such a process.”
The Archbishop responded: “I am honoured to be approached and would be willing to accept in principle, subject to some conditions which have not yet been met.
“The main three are first, and indispensably, that the forum should not be a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form. That power can only be exercised by the Government and MPs in Parliament. A forum must be open to all possibilities.
“Second, that it has cross-party support (although its members will not be politicians).
“Third, the process must have time to be properly organised.”
The MPs suggest that the forum represent both Leave and Remain voters, the diversity of the electorate, and the geography of the UK. “A citizens’ forum is not an alternative to parliamentary democracy,” they state. “But it could be a helpful supplement to parliamentary democracy at a time when Parliament has struggled to reach resolution, and when distrust in politicians has grown.”
Mr Field, who supports Brexit and who now serves as an independent MP, said on Tuesday that he welcomed anything that looked at what the alternatives might be to a no-deal Brexit. He thought that Archbishop Welby was eminently qualified for the task. “What’s been lacking in all our discussions is someone who genuinely knows how to chair.”
As for the timescale — one of the Archbishop’s concerns — Mr Field didn’t think there was a problem about convening something before 31 October. “If we thought that the country was going over a cliff, people would come down on Wednesday” (i.e. the next day).
The exchange between the MPs and the Archbishop, which the Church Times understands began a week ago, was made public on Tuesday after The Times reported that the Archbishop was in talks with MPs to hold a “citizen’s assembly” in Coventry next month to discuss Brexit.
From 2002 to 2007, Archbishop Welby was a canon of Coventry, and involved in the cathedral’s work of international reconciliation.
The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, said: “Coventry’s story says that, where something is broken, rebuild it. When hope is running out, revive it. What conflict disrupts, let peace restore. Where there’s division, reconcile. So it’s entirely fitting for a citizens’ forum, chaired by the Archbishop, to come to Coventry.
“My hope is that it will not only help this country to heal, hope, and reconcile, but will reach out to our neighbours in Europe to mend what the last years have damaged, and to show that whatever the form of our political relationship in any moment of history, the peoples of our lands are bound together in deeper ties of common life and humanity.”
The former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, criticised the proposal as “deeply inappropriate”, however. He told The Times on Tuesday: “I generally don’t criticise the Archbishop, but he shouldn’t allow himself to be tempted into what is essentially a very political issue right now.
“This assembly is designed to destabilise Boris Johnson’s position. As such I hope he will recognise the deeply political nature of this.”
The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, responded: “I wonder what Iain Duncan Smith is afraid of? It seems to me to be a helpful idea. In a mature democracy, people would not be afraid of doing this, because it would show what people’s concerns and fears and hopes and aspirations around this subject were.”
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said: “A citizens Forum is a neutral body aimed at listening and reporting. It does not predetermine an outcome. It is good that the Archbishop of Canterbury is willing to chair this, and enable all voices to be heard. Continued discussion and debate is essential for a strong democracy.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, also welcomed the idea as an “attempt to bring reconciliation at a time of national emergency”. He told The Times: “While it would be wrong to undermine the result of the referendum, leaving the EU without a deal could be profoundly damaging, especially for more deprived communities across the north.
“There appears to be a new mood in global politics that delights in division, and the willingness of the Archbishop to exercise his ministry as a bridge-builder and reconciler is a potent way of bearing witness to the Christ who prays that all might be one.”
The news of the proposed forum comes after Archbishop Welby told an audience at the Greenbelt Festival at the weekend that Remainers needed to “stop whingeing” and accept that the UK had to leave the EU come October.
In a question-and-answer session on Saturday, he said that, although he had voted Remain, he was a “democrat” and did not support calls for a People’s Vote. He said, to the disappointment of many in the audience: “We have to take seriously the fact that the majority voted Leave. We may not like it, but that is democracy; and that means we have to stop whingeing about it and do something about reuniting the country.”
The Church was almost uniquely positioned to help the nation achieve reconciliation, he said. People must unite behind a “vision for this country that is outward-looking, is done top-down, middle-out, and bottom-up. The Church is one of those institutions that can do that.”
He hinted that the Church was already holding meetings about this, but in private, because the people who were attending would be subject to abuse should their attendance be made public. He suggested, too, that MPs were being “broken” by “hatred and division” over the Brexit issue.
Archbishop Welby said that a People’s Vote was not the answer, however. “Do I know how we move forward? No, I don’t, but I’m a democrat, and I’m sticking to it.”
Read more on the story in our leader comment and Andrew Brown’s press column