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C of E ties with Europe need an energy boost

25 September 2020

Anglican leaders should move beyond Brexit and pay more attention to issues on the Continent, argues Alexander Faludy

WHEN the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, gave her “State of the Union” address to MEPs in Brussels last week, 85 per cent of her presentation (63 of 79 minutes) was in English. Her fellow German conservative, Manfred Weber, responding as leader of the parliament’s largest caucus, the European People’s Party, went further, speaking his complete text in the language of the EU’s recently departed member.

The status of English as Europe’s lingua franca is, of course, consonant with global business practice. It also reflects, however, the UK’s extensive impact on the EU since 1973.

Despite friction with successive UK prime ministers, European esteem for the professionalism of British officials in Brussels has run high. “We’ll miss the Brits” (meaning local colleagues) was a common refrain among member-state diplomats in the EU capital months before “Auld Lang Syne” was sung in the European Parliament to bid British MEPs farewell on 29 January (News, 31 January).

The UK’s past involvement has left an enduring and appreciated legacy on the Continent. Hard work by civil-society actors, including the Churches, is, however, needed if the UK is to maintain good ties with its European neighbours in the years ahead. The looming possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit risks magnifying the existing barriers to understanding. These are, primarily, language (our unwillingness to learn other people’s) and the UK media’s lack of interest in European politics.

 

THE C of E has valuable resources to hand, but it needs to apply them better if it is to lead the way. In the coming years, it can model a spirit of good European relationship in three principal ways: maximising participation in European ecumenical bodies; strengthening Anglican representation in the European institutions; and using the Bishops’ moral authority to call attention to European issues in the House of Lords.

The UK has left the EU, but the C of E remains part of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), which, like the EU, is headquartered in Brussels. The CEC is the key ecumenical forum for Europe’s Protestant and Orthodox Christians. It is also their means of partnership with the Confederation of European Catholic Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE).

The organisation has long benefited from strong Anglican participation, and its current vice-president is the Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani. The CEC’s work, however, is little known, and even less understood, in C of E parishes. Education about the CEC’s activity in promoting theological dialogue, fostering communal reconciliation, and enabling the care of migrants is overdue.

The C of E might also send a powerful signal about its commitment to Europe by sponsoring a particular CEC project or Europe-wide thematic programme. In so doing, it would emulate the example of some (much) smaller and more sparsely resourced Churches in recent years. The CEC’s founding raison d’être was to keep Christians connected across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. It could now be a means of sustaining ties across the Channel in the 2020s.

Conversely, Anglican representation in secular European institutions might also benefit from an energy boost. Through the diocese in Europe, the C of E enjoys accredited lobbyist status in Brussels, and yet this privilege appears to have been under-used. Transparency International’s database Integrity Watch (integritywatch.eu), which presents official data from European institutions, records no high-level meetings between Anglican representatives and EU officials since 2014.

In contrast, the Evangelical Church in Germany has held 14 such meetings, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) three. No recent information about engagement with European institutions is offered by the websites of either the C of E or the diocese in Europe.

 

IT IS in the Westminster Parliament, however, that Anglican leaders can make the most powerful difference. The Lords Spiritual have offered thoughtful contributions to debates on Brexit in the House. Their engagement with European issues per se is, however, in need of development.

As of May, the EU, for the first time, boasts one member — Hungary — which the US-based monitoring organisation Freedom House no longer classes as a democracy but a “hybrid regime”. This month, the European legal-affairs portal Verfassungsblog pointed to worrying echoes of Hungary’s trajectory “in many other EU member states”.

Lords Spiritual have long left the UK Government’s weak diplomatic response to Europe’s rule-of-law crisis unprobed, although they have asked questions about judicial failings in Bahrain and Hong Kong. Recent violence in Minsk, the capital of Belarus (News, 21 August), has passed unremarked. Opportunities were missed to inform better Brexit debate by drawing on ecumenical partners: Denmark’s experience of a differentiated legal relationship with the EU across its various territories is one that bishops should understand through Porvoo contacts.

Promoting healthy ties with our neighbours now requires less questioning of Brexit and more interest in Europeans themselves.

 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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