Brexit: Time for the Church to stop doing politics and start doing faith
Brexit is a political earthquake and the reverberations are still being felt. Not so much in the dreaded economic collapse, which has not happened (yet), nor in any of the apocalyptic disasters which were supposed to hit us the minute we decided not to take the 'experts' advice; but rather in the collective hysterical meltdown that seems to have afflicted some parts of society.
Watching from afar it seems as though some sections of society have gone mad. The Labour Party is tearing itself apart, the far right are playing their usual horrible racist games trying to turn the result to their own advantage, the Scottish Nationalists are marching their troops up to the top of the hill, and we are told that the 'youth' feel betrayed (although only 25 per cent voted to Remain). The venom, disgust and abuse on social media, especially from those who are astounded they did not get their way, leaves a nauseating taste in the mouth and a heavy burden on the heart.
So with a leadership vacuum in the nation, panic in the markets, hysteria from some of the middle classes and an emboldened racism, the Church has stepped in and provided the voice of calm, reason and tolerance, while speaking the truth of Christ into a nation in sore need of it. I wish! Sadly the Church has largely mirrored the nation. In fact this whole shambles has revealed some rather unpleasant truths about the Church as a whole in the UK.
1. We are rubbish at politics
It seems as though many Church leaders think that we have the right, the knowledge and the ability to use our position to advance particular political positions, which we equate with the Kingdom of God. This is across the spectrum, from liberal to evangelical, from low Church to Catholic. It has been disturbing to see just how many Church leaders seem to think that speaking a prophetic word means speaking a political word, even using the same political codes that the secular world uses. I don't have any problem with Church leaders advocating political positions in public as private citizens – l I do it myself – but we have no right to commit our Churches to those positions, nor to equate them as being part of the Christian message.
2. We have lost our sense of perspective because we have lost our sense of God
One minister declared that a second Euro referendum was now the most important thing in the world today. Really? More important than ISIS? More important than Sudan? China? The Zika virus? More important than the Good News we are supposed to be proclaiming to the poor? Isaiah tells us that the nations are "as a drop in the bucket" to God. But because we have forgotten God, or rather because we have equated him with our own petty visions and political opinions, we think that the politics of the EU (whether Remain or Leave) are of seismic importance to the Kingdom. Far more important are the elder who was taken to hospital, the woman in my congregation who has just given birth, the young man asking about becoming a Christian, the new convert looking for guidance and prayer. It's people that matter, not political systems. All rulers are but God's servants. They are not God. And we are not in control. I think that one of the reasons that there has almost been a collective meltdown among some in the middle classes is that we are so used to getting our way that when it doesn't happen we don't know how to cope. Hence the anger, rage, frustration.
3. We are disconnected from the poor and many of the people we profess to serve
Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willesden, not for the first time, made some quite remarkable comments. "There is something deeply troubling about this divide. Since the disaster/triumph that was Thursday, with all that has followed, I haven't met anyone in any of our churches or locality who voted Leave... Incomprehension has become the order of the day, and we have little or no way of empathising with the other side."
Pete is a member of the Labour Party and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, as well as an evangelical leader of Spring Harvest. And yet even with these radical credentials, he does not know anyone who voted Leave – despite the fact that 40 per cent of the people of London did so. No one in his churches, no one in his locality. I suppose this could because some were scared to admit what they had done, scared of the intimidation that many have felt from furious Remainers, who regard anyone who voted Leave as being a dumb racist, but I suspect it just reflects more the class and social divide. Because of course our middle class churches love to talk about justice for the poor and provide soup kitchens as well as 'radical' theology, but they just don't do incarnational ministry. Bishop Pete could not understand why people in areas like Sunderland could vote against the EU when they receive so much EU money. Maybe it's because they are not looking for hand-outs but dignity and some degree of self-determination? The reality is that much of the Church spoke out in favour of the establishment, because it is the establishment – with a spiritual coating. The people of Kensington, Chelsea, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh were overwhelmingly in favour of Remain. So apparently were the Establishment churches. Although 58 per cent of ordinary Christians were for Brexit!
Bishop Broadbent lives in a different world from me. I know plenty people in my own church who voted on either side. I don't know how or whether others voted and I don't need to. Our fellowship is not based on our shared political views, but our shared faith in Christ. I believe that those who voted Remain did so in good faith, having prayerfully thought about the issues. I didn't agree with them, but then I could be wrong. And in terms of our fellowship it is a relatively trivial issue that means ultimately nothing.
4. We are more likely to listen to the voices of social media than we are to listen to the voice of God
Social media, like all tools, can be a great blessing. But it is also a great curse, because it permits incredible evil. The tongue is a restless poison, and the keyboard likewise. So people retweet, reblog articles and gossip that they hear which confirms their already pre-conceived bias. The truth is that on all sides there is propaganda. Christians should be listening to the Word of God, not the gossip of social media.
I listened to a sermon by a minister who began by admitting that he was so traumatised by the vote that he changed his sermon. Not his text. After all the text was largely irrelevant, only there to act as an illustration and back-up to what he had to say, something to hang his political opinions on. His people are not being fed the Word of God, they are being fed the opinions of a man, dressed up in biblical language. What does God say about the EU? I haven't a clue – and neither does any Christian who takes the Bible seriously. But as I am preaching through Isaiah I can see that the Lord has plenty to say about justice, poverty, mercy, sin, righteousness and the need to follow the Suffering Servant. And that is what people need to hear. Not rage or exaltation from the pulpit because of a political vote.
5. The Church is still the salt of the earth and the light of the world
Despite all the above, we need to recognise that the Church of Christ is still here and still being salt and light. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said: "As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world." What we need to ask is, how that comes about? If what the Bible says is true (and surely the Archbishops accept that basic premise!) then human beings are "dead in sins and trespasses". Not mildly sick. Not a little confused. Not falling a little short of our true potential. Dead. We don't just need to Remain with the status quo, or to Leave a particular political system. We need to be made alive. We need new birth. We need a new beginning. We need renewal, revival and reformation.
I thank the Lord that all over the country there are churches where ordinary pastors are proclaiming faithfully what the Bible says, not changing their sermons to suit the political circumstances; where ordinary Christians are faithfully seeking to serve and minister Christ to the poor, hurting and hungry; and where people from many nations, languages, classes, genders and ages are worshipping together as the Body of Christ. We are not the spiritual wings of the Conservative/Liberal/Labour/Nationalist parties. We are the Church of Jesus Christ, his body, his family, his bride, the pillar and foundation of the truth. Let it be!
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.