OPTIMISTS beware: with 19 essays, six responses, a foreword, and the editors’ introduction and conclusion, most readers will find their own views reflected somewhere, while other essays will arouse their irritation, even fury. The uncomfortable read that the editors promise, however, comes not so much from meeting views that you disagree with as from the evidence in these essays of the continuing deep and passionate disagreement. Presenting that in such a wide-ranging and substantial volume is a remarkable achievement on their part.
Many essayists reveal not just their opinions, but their wounds: on the Remain side, regret for having presented a somewhat visionless and utilitarian case for remain (Jonathan Chaplin, Kenneth Medhurst); on the Leave side, the continuing wish to justify the decision that they supported by critiques of the European Union and of the Church of England’s apparent embrace of the Remain case (Sam Norton, Brian Griffiths, Suzanne Evans). The self-flagellation of the former and the critiques of the latter contain important elements of truth; but such intense divisions could easily take a generation to transcend.
Yet there are here also hopeful signs of forward thinking, imagination, and intellectual fruitfulness to be found alongside the passionate conviction: the challenge to a better listening (Philip North, Adrian Hilton); who is the “demos” in our “democracy”? (Nick Baines); Brexit as part of the global challenge of populism and the weakness of “liberalism” (John Milbank, Nicholas Townsend); and the place of the UK in the new geopolitics (Stephen Green) (Comment, 4 December 2020).
Alison Rose and Robert Innes bring their different experiences of the EU to bear on the continuing issues involved in the future relationship, and the UK’s continuing interest in the nourishing of the “soul of Europe”.
Different perceptions are expressed by those who see themselves outside the largely white English debate. Repentance for branding Leavers as racists or xenophobes must not slide into ignoring the evidence of the part played in Brexit by race and immigration (David Muir and Anthony Reddie), or the inadequate weight attached to the implications for the other two nations of Great Britain (Sarah Rowland Jones for Wales, Charlotte Methuen for Scotland), which will affect the shape of Brexit in ways that cannot yet be foreseen.
As for Ireland, the essay by the Bishop of the cross-border diocese of Clogher, John McDowell, and his open letter to the Prime Minister both have an iconic beauty shaped by seeing the issue literally from both sides, and it’s a pity that Sam Norton is so irritated by the language of the C of E bishops’ open letter that he overlooks the point that they are making about the border.
“Anglican reflections” are bound to include engagement with issues that arise particularly in an established Church (even though that applies to only one of the four Anglican Churches in these islands, while even that one has a “non-established” presence in mainland Europe): is “neutrality” in contentious issues required of such a Church and its leading spokespeople?
There are issues here about what the archbishops and bishops did say or were reported as saying, and what they could have said instead, which appear in many of the essays and are analysed particularly thoroughly by Malcolm Brown, Ben Ryan, and Adrian Hilton. Questions about establishment have been around since long before Brexit; but many of the writers see it as a very important factor in deciding on the function of the Church of England in taking things forward after such a highly charged political debate. The particular resources that Anglicans bring from their Reformation and post-Reformation experience are very thoughtfully offered by Graham Tomlin as resources for reconciliation.
Essayists from outside the C of E examine how practically its response differed from that of the established Church of Scotland (Doug Gay), and from the contribution of non-established Anglican Churches (Sarah Rowland Jones, Charlotte Methuen, John McDowell) and the Free Churches (Rachel Lampard) — a Roman Catholic contribution would have presented a further perspective.
The contribution of the politician respondents (Sal Brinton, Suzanne Evans, Dominic Grieve, John Denham) raise the disturbing question what more the C of E in particular could have done to support those actively engaged on the political front line and to learn from them.
There are no responses by essayists to each other’s arguments; perhaps that is for the next book. So there is no challenge to the binary classification of people into “somewhere” and “anywhere” which more than one writer employs: what of those who acknowledge more than one “somewhere” with an equal love, and who as a result experience Brexit as a kind of identity theft? They may be EU citizens yet seeing the UK as also home (Matthias Grebe) or those who, while availing themselves of a second citizenship entitlement, would be offended at the suggestion that this makes them “anywhere”, let alone unpatriotic? Perhaps Remainers, too concerned with showing that they are good losers, are withholding that level of passion.
Meanwhile, on the Leave side, Brexit continues to be justified partly by criticising the EU, with no shortage of passion, accusing it of “perpetuating suffering” (Suzanne Evans, and Sam Norton, who even uses the word “idolatrous”, which, if true, would rule out trade with the EU as eating food offered to idols!). Greece, indeed, suffered badly because the EU is still far too bound into neo-liberal economics; but there is another side to that story — and can we know that Greece would have fared better alone under the tender care of the IMF or the World Bank?
And how well placed is the UK, with its detention centres and its Windrush scandal, to cast the first stone at the EU’s problematic, certainly, but, at points, rather more generous response to the migration crisis?
There is, lastly, a modesty among those on the Leave side about the achievement of a successful, powerful, and victorious campaign, and a reticence on the Remain side to present a critique of that and of the determined support of the vast majority of the press. Passing the newspapers each day on the way to the supermarket checkout exposes the shopper, however briefly, to a daily onslaught of a press almost completely on one side. The case that Leavers knew what they were voting for is rightly asserted here; but there is nothing patronising about pointing to the effect that that continuous campaign by another kind of elite would have on any of us.
So, given the clues in Brian Griffiths’s essay about the kind of future Britain which he sees Brexit as making possible, the challenge in Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s foreword that the Church might lead “in tone and substance [to build] a Britain where everyone matters” looks like a cue for the next crucial round of passionate disagreement.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.
The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican reflections on national identity and European solidarity
Jonathan Chaplin and Andrew Bradstock, editors
Church Times Bookshop £11.70