#DisagreeWell: Christian EU debate attempts to shift poisonous rhetoric

Giles Fraser and Ann Widdecombe argued for Brexit against Stephen Wall and Sal Brinton who argued for RemainReuters

Christians on opposite sides of the European Union debate locked horns on Thursday night in a debate billed as a model of how to "disagree well".

In a move to counter the heated rhetoric on both sides of the referendum debate, the panel were asked to offer a "Christian EU debate". The unusual pair of former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe alongside left-wing commentator and priest Giles Fraser argued for Brexit against Lib Dem peer Sal Brinton and former diplomat and British representative to Europe, Stephen Wall.

But when Brinton was introduced as a champion against bullying, Widdecombe couldn't resist the first jibe. "If Sal is opposed to bullying, she should also be opposed to biggest bully of them all - the EU."

The debate moved on to democracy within the EU and Wall suggested it was better for everyone if nations pooled their sovereignty. Fraser countered and said this was not a debate about economics. "I would be happy for us to be poorer if we could have our democracy back. The idea we should trade our democracy for a few percentage points in our economy is lunacy."

Brinton made the point that our democracy in the UK was not perfect. "The reason Ann [Widdecombe] never lost her seat in the House of Commons is because we don't have a fair voting system," she said.

The lively debate continued onto whether there was a moral case for either leave or remain.

"Absolutely not," said Brinton. "But I use my faith to inform my views."

On this Widdecombe agreed. "There is no moral superiority on either position. There is not a monopoly of Christian virtue on either side."

Afterwards Brinton told Christian Today she was inspired by Revelation's reference to a multitude from every nation, tribe, people and tongue. "As a Christian I want us to be part of that. Wanting to remain in the EU is saying there are benefits of remaining together."

She said: "History has shown we are much better when we are united with our colleagues."

Wall added he thought the best way to respond to a Christian value was to care for people beyond our borders in Europe.

The panel were also asked what they would use as the basis for a sermon on Europe.

"The wolf in sheep's clothing," Widdecome said without hesitation. "When we entered the EU we thought it was going to be a tariff agreement and it has turned into a political union."

Brinton took a different tone. "The story of Daniel in Babylon," she said. "The King chose to put power in Daniel's hands and made him ruler of an entire province. The point is Daniel used his faith responsibly."

Wall said he would preach on "render to Caesar what is Caesar's". Widdecome retorted: "I am quite happy to compare the EU to Caesar."

Fraser said he would preach on 1 Samuel 8 when the prophet warns Israel about the dangers of appointing a king. "This is what the king who will reign over you will do," Fraser said, summarising the passage. "He will take your sons and your daughters. He will the best of your fields and give it to his friends.

"And when that day comes you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

"That sounds like the people of Greece today," said Fraser.

That, according to Wall, was "unanswerable".

Fraser admitted he would usually disagree with Widdecome "on 99 per cent of things". But asked whether he was bothered with being on the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, let along Ann Widdecombe, he said it was "childish" to worry about who you share platforms with.

After the debate he told Christian Today: "I share church with people who I profoundly disagree with. If Trump or Putin shared my pews I would pray alongside them.

"It's not an issue for me. I'm not a politician. I would be happy to share a platform with anyone."

But while the debate was intense, organiser Adrian Hilton said it had not strayed into the repetitive insults seen in the mainstream debate.

Giles agreed but added: "I hate the idea Christianity is about being nice to each other. That is the essence of middle-class Britain but not the essence of Christianity.

"Sometimes the debate ought to reflect certain passion and vigour." The panel certainly offered that. At one stage Fraser said he would "eat grass for a year in order to leave the EU".

In conclusion Hilton said: "There has been more light than heat than at any point so far in this debate.

"Iron sharpening iron."