Brexit and a nation in turmoil: how will history judge the Church's response?

Photo: Reuters)

It's clear that Brexit has become a national, not to say European, emergency, and the UK churches should put muscle into contributing positively to the debate about what kind of outcome we look for in this tortuous process, and what kind of a people we aspire to be.

It's understandable that our churches have not wanted to take sides in the Brexit debate. Like Parliament, the churches are as divided as the nation is. The other established church in these islands, the Church of Scotland, has been a conspicuous exception in long championing EU membership, as I've pointed out. It's always made it clear however that its members personally hold a variety of views and no one is asked to endorse its public position.

But I don't think I'm alone in having become dissatisfied with the studied impartiality which my own Church of England has observed at an official level. There comes a time when it is Laodicean not to make a choice - even if we must also underline strongly that Anglicans don't all see things the same way. Diversity of view on this as on many other issues is affirmed in a broad church like ours.

So what ought we to be doing as Christian communities? To my mind, our churches should be drawing on our rich theological and spiritual resources of prophecy and wisdom to put the Brexit controversy into a larger context than nationhood alone. We should offer interpretation that begins not with the "Britain first" mentality but by asking: what might be good for our continent? What might support its poorest and most vulnerable people, including our own? What might make for reconciliation and peacemaking in our world and for the conservation and care of our environment? What might Britain with its wealth of experience bring to the family of nations? And even: what might God's perspective be on all these questions?

What will the starting point be? It's clear enough in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. When it comes to human life, the Bible summons us to love our neighbours as ourselves. There's no ambiguity about this. So it can only mean that the flourishing of other people should be as prominent in our concerns as our own, and by extension, the welfare of communities, not just individuals. Here's the insight that should challenge these years of self-interested rhetoric about promoting our own wealth by "taking back control".

I've always believed that "better together" expresses an ideal of society at its most wholesome. Collaboration, partnership, common purpose achieved not by coercion but by consent - no nation could survive without them, no church, no community of any kind. That's why our consent to align ourselves with the European Union and play a leading part in its life has served all our nations well in our lifetimes. But now we face the threat of fragmentation wherever we look, not least due to extremist politics that are openly contemptuous of the civilised values most of our post-war generation have grown up with in Europe.

If our churches are not one hundred per cent clear about the importance of loving our neighbour, who else is going to be? I'm saying that we now need urgently to speak up for these values before it is too late. That's a matter that goes well beyond Brexit. But Brexit is itself a symptom of disintegration, the loss of belief in values that once held us together, the falling apart of an association of peoples who were all the stronger because they pooled their sovereignty and pledged to work together for the common good. I find this intellectual and spiritual collapse, which is what I largely think it is, extraordinarily sad.

These things were important to those who launched the European project in the aftermath of war. They were not all people of explicit faith, but they were deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching about how human beings flourish when they invest in healthy relationships, strong communities and a just, inclusive and equitable society. It took courage to think in that way and perseverance to put its ideals in practice. It was immensely far-sighted. I think it could be argued that it came to fruition - however slowly and fitfully - because of an understanding of humanity based not on economic or political expediency (though that comes into it) but on humane theological values of justice, peace, truth and charity, which in turn derive from the wisdom and goodness of the Creator.

Who is speaking nowadays about this founding vision? Some faith leaders aren't afraid to do this as individual men and women. They deserve our gratitude and encouragement because it is often controversial and sometimes costly. But what about our churches as public institutions? Where's the voice of urgency, the spirited engagement in what will affect the future of us all? That's where I'm left feeling despondent.

Even-handedness can be a good thing, not least when you can see different sides of a complex question. But now is a time when choices must be made. That's when voices need to be heard that are prophetic, hopeful and wise. So much hangs on decisions made in the coming days and weeks that will irrevocably affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren for decades to come.

Archbishop Justin Welby, launching the Church of England's tea and prayer for Brexit initiative earlier this year, said: "A century from now the Church will be remembered for how it responded at this crucial moment in the life of our nation and country." 

He is right of course. We stand at a moment in history that most generations don't get to experience. At such times, destinies are forged. This brings both the privilege and responsibility of the nation's institutions to speak publicly in ways that capture the significance of our times and interpret them with wisdom and prophetic insight.

I don't think we have fully understood that yet in the Church of England. But I reckon that if George Bell and William Temple were alive today, they would urge the church to take a robustly positive view of our membership of the EU and not regard it as a matter of indifference. They would speak out against nationalism in all its forms. They would see off the specious doctrine of British exceptionalism. They would surely say, for the sake of justice and the welfare of Europe as well as the UK, let's give ourselves unreservedly to the life of the continent we're part of. They would say these things with charity. But they would not hold back when it came to conviction. It would matter to them what side of history the Church of England decided to be on.

Wouldn't it be marvellous if our churches embraced the idea of a forward-looking nation, one that grasped hold of a future in which we pledged commitment to our neighbouring peoples and nations and affirmed the friendships and alliances that have served us so well in Europe? Cuthbert saw the world as a place where everything - including human life - was connected, held together in the love of God. I passionately believe that the European Project is consistent with that life-affirming vision. Why wouldn't the Church want to say amen?

Michael Sadgrove is a priest and European living in Northumberland. He is the former Dean of Sheffield and Dean of Durham, and blogs on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues at: