The bishop braving the Brexit divide

(Photo: Reuters)

It's a brave church leader that ventures into Brexit territory. The debate over the UK leaving the European Union has split political parties, local communities and families.

A campaign by pro-Brexit lobby group Leave EU to encourage churches to ring their bells to celebrate the withdrawal on February 1 has prompted controversy among church people.

One priest dismissed the idea as "partisan jingoism".

Meanwhile, a prominent Church of England bishop has published a proposal to "bring the country back together" after the divisions caused by the Referendum and its aftermath.

He is the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, who proved his ability to take a stand and make his voice heard when he spoke up for the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017. Since then, Bishop Tomlin has been campaigning for lessons to be learnt and actions taken following the deaths of 72 people in a North Kensington tower block.

Now he has authored Looking Beyond Brexit (SPCK), aimed at putting the Brexit debate and decision in a wider historical and social context, and helpfully suggesting a way forward to heal the divisions.

The 39-page booklet is dedicated by Tomlin "to all my friends who voted either Leave or Remain".

He draws parallels between Brexit and the Reformation, when "in a sixteenth-century version of Article 50, Britain made a break from Europe, declaring the King – rather than the Pope – Supreme Head of the English Church".

In Tomlin's balanced analysis, the Leave vote was "at least in part, a cry of protest against what was perceived as a threat to national identity, whether through mass immigration, the vision of an increasingly federal Europe (that promised to erode national identity and sovereignty), or a globalization that threatened local culture".

The Remain vote, Tomlin says, "largely came from those who value openness to other cultures and desire to change and develop. They feared ethnic and national rigidity and favoured the possibilities and opportunities offered by engagement with our nearest neighbours."

Bishop Tomlin is encouraging churches to bring together Leave and Remain voters, firstly those within their own congregations, and over time, people from the wider community.

He told listeners to the popular 'GodPod' podcast in December, "One of the things I've been doing over the last months here in London is to hold a series of gatherings where I bring people together.

"I did one the other night, and we brought 150 people together and I asked them at the beginning to indicate whether they voted Leave or Remain.

"Then I said, I want you to find someone who voted the other way to you and explain to each other why you voted the way you did. The rules are that you don't argue back, you don't try to prove your point, you just listen to the other person."

Bishop Tomlin continued: "As I was watching these people having this conversation, right across the room, it struck me that this is just not happening in our culture. We should be able to do this as the church."

He believes that it is only through these honest, open conversations that healing can come. If churches can initiate those gatherings within their own congregations, they could go on to host wider conversations.
He believes society needs to be able to have the Brexit conversation in a way that "doesn't end up in the name calling, and the shouting and the aggression that has happened so often in the debate so far."

The appeal from Bishop Tomlin echoes that discussed at a gathering of 50 Christian and Jewish clergy in a Hertfordshire synagogue in June 2019. Together, they considered ways that faith communities might help heal the nation's Brexit divisions.

As the clock ticks down to the UK's exit from the European Union at the end of this month, could it be that the nation's churches and other faith communities might hold the key to bringing the nation back together?

Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts.