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The Bishops’ misplaced respect

04 October 2019

IT WAS a very Anglican betrayal. No Gove-like rush of blood to the head, stolid Johnsonian plotting, or Momentum bullying. Just a throwaway line at the start of the College of Bishops’ statement on the tenor of political discourse. It was a clearing of the throat, a testing of the microphone. “In writing, we affirm our respect for the June 2016 Referendum, and our belief that the result should be honoured.”

All three parts of this sentence deserve a closer look. First, “in writing” means “in passing”: the Bishops want to move on to their main concern. It is remarkable that the first-ever unanimous declaration of episcopal support for Brexit should be expressed in such an offhand way. Or that none of them seems to have wanted to demur since the publication of the statement in their name. Next: “We affirm our respect for the June 2016 Referendum.” Three years ago, meeting just days after the Referendum, the General Synod carried a motion “recognising the result”. Recognition is one thing; respect seems excessive for an event that, three years on, can be seen as the trigger for the bitter divisions that the Bishops go on to wring their hands over. Respect has to be earned, and the blundering of the Cameron Government, plus the subsequent fines handed by the Electoral Commission to the two chief Leave lobby groups “for multiple offences under electoral law”, as well as further insights into their tactics, do not seem deserving of respect.

Before looking at the third element — “our belief that the result should be honoured” — it is worth moving on to the core sentences of the statement: “We should speak to others with respect. And we should listen. We should do this especially with the poor, with the marginalised, and with those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation.” We pass over the choice of “with” as a preposition, which makes a nonsense of this last sentence. The argument that the “elite” are refusing to listen to the “voices of the poor” has a ring of truth. It was employed by, among others, the Revd Sam Norton, the would-be Brexit Party MP, who last month directed this accusation at the Bishops themselves (Comment, 20 September), after 25 of their number had expressed concern about the predicted damage caused by a no-deal Brexit.

But the argument has an equal truth when applied to the powerful elite around the Prime Minister. Not only have they declined to listen to the 16.1 million who voted to remain in the EU: they have consistently wiped them from the political scene. And who ever mentions the 13.7 million who did not vote — not because they chose not to, but because they were too young? Three years on, 2.3 million of these are now eligible to vote, and yet it is deemed undemocratic to give them a voice. The greatest outrage of the Brexit debate, pace the Bishops, is not what has been said, but what has been omitted. Anyone schooled in the Book of Common Prayer confession should have been alert to that. For three years, we have had to listen to ministers talk about the 17.4 million, and, in their next breath, vowing to “honour the will of the people”.

This is why the statement that the Bishops signed up to (or were presumed to agree with) is so wrong. “Honouring the Referendum result” might sound innocent, but, thanks to its appropriation by Brexiters, the phrase now means, exclusively, pushing Brexit through in the face of any opposition. Here are just two remarks from the day after the statement was published, one from a correspondent: “Our bishops have at the eleventh hour decided that the Referendum result must be fully implemented and wholly respected. A descent into anarchy will be the outcome if our nation does not leave cleanly on October 31st”; the other from a blogger: “Bishops urge Boris to get on and deliver Brexit.”

What the Bishops intended — and this is what they went on to say — was that they wished to honour “the honest views of fellow citizens”. Had they done so without the preamble, we should have had no cause to speak of betrayal. But even this message invites the question: which fellow citizens? At the heart of the stalemate between our much-derided politicians is the knowledge that a straightforward in-out decision cannot remedy the deep divisions caused by a 51.9/48.1-per-cent split. At its simplest, do the Bishops realise that, when they state “Our concern is also for the structure and the constitution of the United Kingdom,” their opting for Brexit has the likelihood of hastening the departure of one part of the UK and threatening the security of another? Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU.

Things become more complicated when we return to “the poor”. It is true that some of the strongest votes in favour of Brexit were recorded in areas with the greatest deprivation, but even this requires qualification. The Vote Leave lobbyists targeted predominantly white working-class areas. The fact that metropolitan areas were more evenly split, and London voted strongly Remain, has been dismissed as the influence of the metropolitan elite. But the elite, however defined, is numerically tiny; the fact that these are areas with the greatest non-white populations has been largely ignored. If the Bishops are serious about the voices of those who are “often not heard in our national conversation”, then these are among the voices that they should be representing. The 25 diocesan bishops who released the anti-no-deal statement last month (News, 30 August) grasped this better: “Poor people, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe must be listened to and respected.” We know of churches, and vicarages, where EU citizens feel under threat, and would have appreciated a word of support from their Bishops.

There is a heresy that periodically infects all traditions in Christianity. We are not citizens of this world, it states, and therefore the affairs of this world do not concern us. At the high end of the Church, this translates into pietism; lower down, it tempts Evangelicals and Charismatics to believe that they should adhere to a Christian counter-culture in which, as just one example, the growth of foodbanks is seen as a mission opportunity rather than a prompt to engage rigorously with a Government that has eroded public services and mishandled the benefit system. For bishops, this heresy invites them to imagine themselves as a focus of unity, unable to say anything that might be deemed politically divisive. Thus they have consistently removed themselves from a debate that directly affects the material and, we would argue, spiritual well-being of the people they attempt to serve. It is for this reason that even a statement about the language used in the past fortnight is curiously unfocused, open to the charge that they make no distinction between the bullies and the bullied. This is in contrast to the Bishop of Leeds, who rightly called on the Prime Minister to apologise for his “destructive” language.

The first paradox is that those who drafted the statement began it, either deliberately or carelessly, with a sentence that is supremely party-political. As a correspondent (page 16) remarks, the Bishops, by lining themselves up behind the concept of “honouring” the Referendum result, as currently defined, place themselves at variance with the Liberal Democrats and, it could be argued, the Labour Party, which supports a second referendum. Church of England congregations are unused to seeing their leaders overlook the policies of two mainstream parties in order to side with the right wing of the Conservative Party without realising that this is what they are doing.

The other paradox is that the Bishops are correct: the UK’s predicament does come down to the unacceptable use of language. But this is not the histrionic or contemptuous exchanges of the past fortnight. The whole of the Brexit project has been poisoned from the start by exaggeration, misdirection, and falsehood. Many of those who now support the UK’s departure from the European Union do so out of resignation. The traducing of the EU, out of all proportion to its failings, has gone on for so long and at such a pitch that it is hard to see a return to any sort of normal relationship. And yet the vision of a united Europe, working together to address problems common to all, promoting peace, reconciliation, and mutual aid, and with the UK an integral part — the vision that prompted almost all of the Bishops to vote to remain — must not be betrayed or, should we say, surrendered.

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