Is God speaking clearly to Britain as it grapples with ongoing divisions and warnings of potential catastrophe in the run-up to leaving the European Union?
Well-known evangelist David Hathaway certainly thinks so. He has declared: 'I believe Brexit was an answer to prayer.' Indeed, he has connected the EU with ancient biblical prophecy found in the book of Daniel. At the same time, on the other hand, the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, has described Brexit as 'calamitous' and 'wrong, misguided and crazy'.
One sees it as decisive divine intervention to save a nation; the other believes it is a disaster. They can't both be right, of course – and then again it's also possible that neither of them is correct; the truth might be somewhere in between. So how as Christians can we sensibly perceive what God is saying to the UK at this tumultuous and unpredictable time?
The answer, as always, is to go to where we can be sure God has spoken – in other words, back to the Bible. All mainstream Christian denominations acknowledge the unique divine authority of Scripture. For example, as Rowan Williams put it, 'Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God – that is, they believe that the texts that make up the Bible were composed by the help of the Holy Spirit and that they communicate God's will perfectly when they are taken together and read in the context of prayer and worship...' And Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and originator of the Alpha course, has said: 'For Jesus, what the Scriptures said, God said (Mark 7:5-13). If Jesus is our Lord, our attitude to the Scriptures should be the same as his.' So when we look at Scripture, what could we be sure God is saying to the UK?
1. As a nation, we need to repent. We can be sure of this because it is at the heart of Jesus' invitation to all ('repent and believe the good news'), at the heart of his warnings ('unless you repent, you too will perish') and because Acts 17:30 tells us that God 'now commands all people everywhere to repent'.
In a recent talk I challenged my hearers – including myself first and foremost – by asking us when the last time was that we got on our knees (or sat in our chairs if not able to kneel) in repentance before the Lord? Or do we just go through a muttered confession in church once a week, or a quick 'forgive me my sins' somewhere in our daily prayers? If so, perhaps we are in danger of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred by the Nazis, called 'cheap grace'. He wrote: 'Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.'
2. We need to pray. We should be praying for our leaders, because the New Testament tells us to pray for 'those in authority' (1 Timothy 2:2). Indeed, the apostle Paul deems it so important he repeats the idea with different words. We are to do this, he says, with 'petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving'. Through repetition he wants us to get the point. So we should pray for our political leaders and all parliamentarians. They need much wisdom.
We also need to pray for unity – both within the country, and within the church. As Jesus memorably puts it, 'a house divided against itself will not stand'. And divided we are at the moment, on both counts. I do worry that a second Brexit referendum, should it happen, could potentially lead not only to further division but even to violence on the streets and the rise of extreme right-wing movements. Maybe I am wrong; but, either way, we need to pray for national unity. And we need to pray for church unity – a unity founded on the Scriptures to which we have referred. And this is not easy. As Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition has written: 'There simply is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question of unity and truth. Sometimes the answer is to be inflexible and uncompromising. Other times the answer is to be understanding and accommodating. Yes, the slope is slippery on both sides.'
So how can we pray? Well, I have no idea whether the EU is prophesied in Daniel, as David Hathaway believes, or not. But the prayer in Daniel 9 is certainly one that, with small adaptations, is appropriate for the UK right now. Here's part of it: 'O Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong... Incline your ear, O my God, and hear. Open your eyes and look at our desolation... We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord; forgive; O Lord, listen and act and do not delay!'
Could you pray that for yourself and the UK in your next daily prayer time and pass it on to others to do the same?
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A