A radically Christian perspective on Brexit

Ian Paul writes on his excellent blog about a Christian perspective on Brexit. I find what he writes insufficiently radical and so I thought I’d set out the ways in which I see a properly Christian understanding being brought to bear. Most specifically, I don’t see this analysis as something that a ‘well-meaning atheist’ could share in – and that is the point and revealing of the fundamental problem.

Point one: we are not in charge, God is. One of the most debilitating aspects of the Westminster bubble is the way it encourages a sense of self-sufficency and centrality, that ‘here is where the important things happen and are decided’. One way in which this is going to go ‘pop’ is when the EU chooses a no-deal exit (I give that about 60% chance at the moment) and Westminster suddenly realises that all these shenanigans were only one part of the equation. However, much more important is the Christian claim that God is present and active in our world, and that our calling is to find what he is doing and then get out of the way, to use Peterson’s language. This sense of something outside of our own preferences and choices, which has a greater authority and power than our own preferences and choices, is the principal thing that is missing in our conversation – that is, in our Christian conversations most of all.

Point two: we do not have to be afraid. There are standpoints on both sides of the Brexit divide which seem to be rooted in fear of what might happen. This is the corollary of point one – if everything rests upon our own choices then there is much greater pressure to get them right. If, however, we believe in a God who can always redeem our fallen choices then that pressure is relieved, and, I suspect, the odds of making the best choices increase. We are not to make decisions on the basis of fear, whether that be Project Fear itself or the fears about ‘losing’ Brexit on the Leave side.

Point three: communities, nations and multi-national states (the EU) are real things that are more than simply the sum of their parts. They are ‘principalities and powers’. Their reality is denied by the contemporary dominance of global capitalism, which seeks to minimise such inefficiencies, and therefore undermines them at every turn. Yet Christianity recognises that such things, whilst fallen, can also be redeemed, and calls us to work for such redemption. We need to be much more clear-sighted about the nature of the institutions with which we are dealing, and the ways in which power is being asserted against the vulnerable. Which leads to…

Point four: God has a bias to the poor, and we need to listen to the poor, for it is often through those who are small and of no account to the great and good through whom God speaks to us. It is a shocking thing that the bench of Bishops has no voice affirming the choice of the poor in our society; it is even more shocking that none see the plight of southern Europe as bringing in to question the moral legitimacy of the European polity. Such things do not necessarily entail Brexit – they do, however, require a more prophetic response that comfortable silence.

Point five: sometimes God calls us away from compromise towards radical and unpopular choices; sometimes those who are shepherds of the sheep are called upon to proclaim justice against the oppressor; sometimes what we most need is the Old Testament Heart. The Via Media is not always a virtue – sometimes, to adapt a saying by Mencken, “Every [Christian] must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” Metaphorically speaking, of course. And in love.

So: five elements of a radical Christian response. Read Stringfellow!!

The Westminster Bore

I want to make a spiritual point about our present political debâcle, and I’m going to try very hard to make it in a non-contentious way, as it isn’t a particularly pro-Leave or pro-Remain point (it’s a pro-God point).

The other day we went up to Newnham early on a Friday morning to see the Severn bore, which was fascinating. I grew up on a tidal estuary, and have spent the last fifteen years on an island that gets cut off by high tides, so I am very familiar with tidal movements. Yet the bore was something surprisingly different.

What most struck me was the rapidity of change in the currents. Whilst waiting for the bore to arrive, I watched various surfers and canoeists paddling placidly downstream being propelled at a great pace by the river current. Once the bore had arrived, those very same people were being propelled at equally great pace in the opposite direction. Some particularly skilled people were able to ride the new currents and enjoy the process. Others were caught up and knocked off.

Which seems to be to be a good description of the present Westminster mess – although I am probably overstating the number of ‘particularly skilled people’ there. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brexit, it is undoubtedly a massive political phenomenon that has radically changed the environment within which politicians work. Those who can adapt best to the new situation will be the ones that thrive in the coming years.

So why is this a pro-God point? Simply because when something this large happens, overwhelming the established consensus of the great and the good, then I think we need to use a larger language to describe it – a religious language – and to talk about ‘Acts of God’. If nothing else, it has at least shaken the confidence of our political class, and the cultivation of humility in the light of incompetence is a salutary and – potentially – spiritually beneficial thing.

I rather think that whoever is best able to navigate the new political currents stands to reap immense benefits – but such a person would need to have not just political nous but religious (spiritual/ currents) nous as well. It needs to be someone with the capacity to call upon God to lead us, rather than resting on human strength alone. I have no idea who that might be at the moment, so I’ll keep praying, for all of them, on all sides. Please do so too – they are so in need of our prayers!

Of Brexit and the baking of bricks

‘Who bakes the bricks?’

This is an important question, from many different points of view. We need to consider who bakes the bricks from an economic perspective, from a practical and social justice perspective, from the perspective of gender roles and unconscious bias. The question of who bakes the bricks becomes all the more important when the people as a whole are asked to bake more bricks with less straw.

Yet at that sort of time, there might be a more urgent question than who bakes the bricks. There might be a calling from someone named Moses, or his brother Aaron, saying ‘set my people free’. There might be an almighty – even an Almighty – struggle going on between the establishment powers and the insurgent powers. The question of who bakes the bricks, which is an important question, might have to take second place to an even more important question, which is: where shall we bake the bricks?

Shall we bake the bricks in the promised land?

The people cry out for relief, for they struggle under the weight of oppression, and their existing leaders are comfortable with the status quo. So strange leaders come among them, who do not have impeccable credentials, one might even be a murderer. Yet the Lord is with them. They are aware that the Lord has decided to liberate his people, he has heard their crying unto Heaven and now look! He is doing a new thing.

Those who argue about the baking of bricks do not know what to make of this. They are trapped within the Royal Consciousness, and the world made by Pharaoh is the only world that they can conceive of. They cannot see the new thing that the Lord is doing. They do know what to do about bricks, though. So they concentrate their time on arguing about the production of bricks, for this too is an important question and it is important to get the right answer. Perhaps we can lead the Hebrews to a new place just outside the city walls, and continue to contribute to the baking of bricks from there? Would that be alright please, Mr Pharaoh?

Where shall we bake the bricks?

The church wrings its hands over Brexit, and seeks earnestly and sincerely for the overcoming of divisions and the reconciliation between estranged parties. If only we could be nicer then perhaps that nice Mr Pharaoh and that mostly nice (but a bit uncouth) Mr Moses can come together in a happy compromise…. Meanwhile the Lord Almighty changes the world and asks those who truly respond to His will to daub the frames of their doors with blood and to get ready to move at short notice.

We in the church have so many great and important questions to wrestle with, questions of justice and economy and sexuality and gender, and these truly are important questions. Yet sometimes what is most important is not to resolve questions such as these but rather to simply listen and pay attention and seek to discern what God is actually doing in a time such as this.

Were we to do this, were we to look up from our parochial concerns and truly take in the newly forming vision for our national life together then perhaps we might agree to not resolve the questions around the baking of bricks for a year or three in order to stride forward with faith into the wilderness, not turning to look behind.

The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of the nation, and this is all the more problematic when questions of nationhood – of where we are to bake the bricks, of what sort of country it shall be wherein the baking of bricks shall be done – are so important. We fret ourselves into frenzied activity trying to show how relevant we are, yet the most relevant and timely claim upon our involvement is one that we are now so ill-equipped to handle. For it is not a question of who bakes the bricks. It is a question of ‘can you see what the Lord is doing?’ and ‘is this not a marvellous thing in your eyes?’

Hear the word of the Lord you peoples of the United Kingdom, for these dry bones shall live again. The Lord is going to destroy Pharaoh and all his works – we have only to stand aside and be still.

Does God have a plan for Brexit?

I ask because it seems that there is a consistent pattern of people seeking one outcome and by their actions precipitating precisely the opposite outcome.

It begins with David Cameron seeking to lance the boil of Conservative divisions over Europe by calling the EU referendum, the result of which has been to bring the Conservative party to the brink of a formal split.

It then moves to Gina Miller, who took the government to court, insisting that Parliament had to be involved in invoking the Article 50 procedure for leaving the EU. As a result of this, the departure from the EU is much more thoroughly embedded than if it had simply been a matter of government fiat.

Then there is Theresa May herself, who called an early general election when supremely ahead in the polls, but whose disastrous campaign leadership led to the elimination of her majority.

What of the ERG? By bringing about a no-confidence vote in her leadership, they have ensured that Theresa May is untouchable through the most crucial months of decision making.

What about Michael Gove’s stabbing of Boris Johnson? Might fit…

I just have this suspicion that when the tectonic plates of politics start to shift there is very little that individual actions can do to prevent a particular outcome. It’s rather like one stevedore on the dockside valiantly holding on to a rope whilst the cruise liner starts to motor in the opposite direction. Or…

So that is my musing about Brexit at the moment – there is nothing that can be done to stop it, there are far greater forces at work than we seem to be aware of, and God has a plan.

But what is really going to bake your noodle is that all the above is UK-centric. The envoys of the Commission are intent on punishing the UK and making an example of us, in order to ensure that the EU is strengthened and sustained on its path to becoming a single state.

Time to start counting the days until the existing EU has collapsed then. I give it less than three years.

Recommended reading for Remainers

A most interesting little snippet: people identify much more strongly with Leave or Remain than with traditional party affiliations, and this has surprising consequences. According to a recent survey only 9% of Leavers would object if their child married a Remainer, but 37% of Remainers would object if their child married a Leaver!

I would like to work towards a reconciliation between the two factions into which our country has been divided. Theologically, reconciliation is the fruit of forgiveness and repentance – forgiveness from the one who has been hurt, and repentance from the one who has done the hurting. Of course, at the moment there is not even agreement on what counts as ‘hurt’ – I think there are many things that count – so perhaps the priority is to ensure that there is a careful delineation of differences, so that we actually gain some clarity over what it is that divides us.

A good principle in argument is that criticisms of a position have most effect if you have first demonstrated that you understand that position in terms that the advocate of that position would accept as a true account. In other words, to criticise Remain requires Leavers to articulate the Remain position in such a way that Remainers say ‘yes, that is what we think’. This is best done in an iterative fashion – an attempt to articulate it is made by a Leaver, and the Remainer then comments yes or no to the various elements, the Leaver adapts the articulation in response, until there is agreement between both sides as to what the Remain position is.

So here goes…

The Remain position views the European Union as a force for good in the world. It sees the legacy of the repeated conflicts between European nations, most especially in the twentieth century, as a tragedy, and the development of the European Union as the foundation of peace in Europe that ensures that such conflicts do not recur. The enhanced friendship between nations that the European Union allows for is well expressed through the ability of all citizens within the Union to move freely between the members states of the Union. The Union upholds excellent standards in human rights, workers rights and environmental protection. In addition, the economic aspects of the Union underpin the wealth that we enjoy. To discard these benefits by Leaving is an act of financial folly and cultural self-harm that we will regret for decades. For Remain, being a member of the European Union is a significant part of their personal identity, and a source of pride.

I don’t see that as an exhaustive summary of the Remain position, but I hope I’ve captured the key points – and I invite any and all comments to enable that presentation to improve. It is not an ignoble position to hold, and there are many values within it that I would wish to affirm, especially the importance of friendship across national boundaries.

I would also invite those who wish to understand the Leave position to carry out a similar exercise, and to help that process I would like to recommend several books.

The first is Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’, subtitled ‘why good people disagree about religion and politics’. Haidt argues that those who hold to a more ‘progressive’ perspective – what we would call left wing – recognise two sources of moral value, those being care (do no harm to people) and fairness (treat people equally). In contrast, those who hold to a more conservative position also value three other sources of moral value, loyalty (do not betray your group), authority (respect for traditions) and sanctity (recognise what is holy and reject what is disgusting). The key element for the Remain/Leave dialogue is that the two sides give different weight to what it means to be British.

Which leads to the second recommendation, Linda Colley’s book ‘Britons’. This is a very readable work of historical analysis, that outlines how the British sense of national identity became formed against the ‘other’ of continental Europe, starting with the religious division against the papacy in Rome, but incorporating over time the wars with Napoleonic France and the traumas of the twentieth century. This book helps to understand what it is that Leavers are valuing with their loyalty, authority and sense of sanctity.

Bringing this perspective up to date is Matthew Goodwin’s and Roger Eatwell’s ‘National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy’. This analysis has been written after the Brexit vote and considers the way in which the wave of national populism can be found in many diverse countries, and why it is only going to get stronger over time. The analysis centres on what the authors call the “four D’s”: Distrust of the existing political class, Destruction of communities and patterns of life, the Deprivation that has followed economic disclocation, and the De-alignment from traditional political parties that is the result. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who thinks that the vote for Brexit in 2016 was the accidental result of anything that happened during the three weeks of the referendum campaign.

Paul Lever was the British Ambassador to Germany, and he has written an excellent account of how Germany and the EU inter-relate: ‘Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way’. I hadn’t appreciated quite how far German thinking had shaped the setting up of EU institutions, such that the Federal structure of Germany is replicated on a larger scale in the EU, and that the inevitable consequence of this is that the EU will become a single state with all that this implies, including a single army. The EU is a thoroughly Germanic project.

For a sharper sense of what this implies I strongly recommend a read of Yanis Varoufakis’ ‘Adults in the Room’, which is an account of Varoufakis’ short tenure as a finance minister in Greece, and the way in which a democratic vote in that country was overturned by the EU machinery on behalf of French and German banks. It is difficult to credit the European Union with any moral authority after reading this!

So far, reading these books will give a sense and understanding of a general Leave perspective. For an additional recommendation, which would help to understand my own specific point of view, I would recommend Joseph Tainter’s ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’, which analyses around a dozen different Empires in human history, seeking to account for why they collapsed. In brief, they collapse when a central authority takes more from subject territories than it returns in benefits. I believe that his analysis applies quite well to the European Union – and that the Union will therefore collapse before too long.

I hope that it is possible to pursue civilised conversations about the differences between the Leave and Remain perspectives (and I confess to have occasionally added more heat than light to the debate). We are one nation after all.

So that was 2018

A year of huge change…
Having lived in Essex for almost all my life (and when not there, been principally in London/ South East) I have moved a long way away to the wonderful and beautiful Forest of Dean, close to the Welsh border (and closer to children), doing a new job split between two things that I would enjoy doing full time!
A great leap of faith, which seems to be working out so far. Funny that.
Good for the family too, though not without cost in terms of disruption and upheaval. Fortunately the new home, despite teething problems, should serve us well for the coming years, and it is lovely to be in a Diocese that takes seriously the potential that a non-functioning house has for causing stress and domestic damage.

I miss Mersea – people more than place – but both.

I lost the chance to be an ugly sister in Cinderella due to the move, and suspect that, re: Panto playing, there may be some time before it comes back, if it ever does.
Yet one of my best moments with the Mersea Island Players came with the Mersea Island Music Marathon, which, for so many reasons, will be a life-time memory. I knew in my bones that I was leaving Mersea at that point, which made the finale all the more moving.
A slightly disappointing Greenbelt, where I became even more conscious of not quite fitting in – yet I remain a committed Angel, and I shall continue going each year – not least as it will now be a much more important opportunity to catch up with friends.

I’ve kept the newspaper article going, not without some misgivings. I chose a style – was led to choose a style – many years ago, which is more deliberately controversial and provocative than I think I am in person. I will seek to change that this year. I’m pondering much about scapegoating (Girardian) and what is happening over Brexit. I think I will continue to become more politically engaged, although I don’t know what form that will take.

Had some lovely sailing, but not enough, and we wait to see what will happen with the boat, whether we will use it often enough to make it worthwhile to keep it or whether to sell it – and if we keep it, where to keep it! It’s good to have an excuse to go back to Mersea of course.
Have had to take an intermission (pause) for my doctoral studies, due to the move, but am keen to get fully back on top of that. It’s not going to be what I thought it was going to be, but I think it will still be worthwhile and fun.

I have enjoyed my new motorbike greatly, and plan to get through the main test in the early part of 2019 and to upgrade, almost certainly to a Deauville 650.

Lost some close colleagues and friends in the year, but also saw wonderful colleague ordained to the priesthood. I feel like Mersea is in good hands (not just his).
Have started to read a lot more – brain is generally ‘waking up’ again after too many years of being both ill-used and dis-used, but that time has not been a total loss, as other parts of me have grown.

I always re-read these annual summaries each time I do a new one. Seems like I don’t change much! I’m happier than I’ve been for many years though. God is good.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.

Be ready to boycott the betrayal of Brexit

In all the chaos that currently passes for a government at this moment in time, one outcome that is becoming more probable than not – although still a very long way from being certain – is that of a second referendum on the question of Brexit. Mrs May has made such a dog’s breakfast of her Brexit strategy that very few alternative courses of action offer the remotest possibility of being successfully implemented. Hence there is a sense that our political class might show their utter lack of testicular fortitude and capacity for leadership by throwing the next decision on Brexit on to the shoulders of the voters. “Here, we can’t cope with this – you do something!”

There are so many aspects to the question of a second referendum, and so many potential dangers, but my own view on whether this might be a healthy way forward for our country resolves down to a simple issue: what question will be put to the voters? After all, the plea for a ‘People’s vote’ – because those who voted in the 2016 referendum don’t count as people – begs so many issues.

To reduce those complexities to a simple consideration, the question might be either a re-run of the first one, with a view to gaining a different result, or, alternatively, it might be a choice between Mrs May’s ‘deal’ and ‘no deal’. I believe that to pursue the first course would be catastrophic; the second might just enable us to heal as a community, and to move forward.

To address the latter first: if the question is about what sort of Brexit to pursue, then there is a clear and binary choice that can be presented to voters, which has integrity and continuity with everything that has happened up to this point. Mrs May can continue to advocate her deal as the best of all possible deals (which might be true) and those who see it as a mare’s nest of capitulation and incompetence will be liberated to argue for a much cleaner and simpler alternative of a ‘no deal’ (whilst also being open about the non-trivial costs that would likely follow such a choice).

I would see that sort of second referendum as being healthy – it would bring all our contentious disputes to a single point of decision but would also, and this is most essential, respect the integrity of the first referendum, and thus, by implication, respect all those who voted in the first referendum, including so many who had never voted before.

However, in clear contrast with that, if the second referendum is simply a re-run of the first one then the opposite applies. Let us remember that more people voted for Leave in that referendum than have ever voted for anything else in our history. To have that vote, and that decision, put to one side for reasons of administrative convenience at best would be a disastrous breach of trust. It would not solve any problems; rather, it would entrench and exacerbate all of our present disputes.

If the second referendum is simply a repeat of the first, then we are looking at a constitutional coup d’état: an issue which was, through Parliament, put to the people with a clear promise that the decision would then be implemented – that decision of the empowered people would then be overturned, along with the results of the last general election (most elected on manifesto promises to implement the referendum result) and the expressed will of the House of Commons (the votes to withdraw from the EU).

In no other realm of public activity would we accept the overturning of such a vote. Here some clarity is important. People might argue – rightly – that we overturn previous votes all the time, not least when there is a change of government following a General Election. The crucial distinction which so often seems to be missed in public discussion around a second referendum is that, in all these other contexts, the decision of the first vote is implemented before there is a second vote. So MPs are voted into office, and then take office, and subsequent votes are taken on that basis. So, with a referendum about Brexit, if the vote does not proceed from the basis that we are to leave the EU then we are looking at a major breakdown in our moral, democratic and constitutional norms.

If any second referendum contains ‘Remain’ in any shape or form as a potential option, then I believe that the only possible path which might preserve our social fabric is a widespread boycott of such a referendum, thus depriving it of political legitimacy, and affirming the legitimacy of the first referendum. To take part in such a second referendum would mean that we were, by so doing, lending that endeavour authority. We would be saying that we accepted the basis on which the question was being offered. To do so would be like saying, after a general election, that the successful MP in a constituency cannot take office until there is another election to confirm that person in office.

Such a path is inconsistent with the best of who we are. There may well be a time when it is right to put rejoining the EU to the people of the United Kingdom, at which point those in favour of such a path can argue clearly and openly for the federal future that joining the EU means – such clear and open advocacy for the federal future was, after all, notably absent from the earlier referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, and has still never gained the approval of the UK. Yet to get to that point with any integrity, and with any chance of keeping the peace of our society, it has to be done subsequent to our leaving the European Union. That is what was voted for, and that is what has to be implemented.

I very much hope that we are not presented with a second referendum which contains the possibility of nullifying the first. If we are, however, the way forward seems clear for all those who are concerned about the catastrophic damage such a strategy would cause to our society. We need to be ready to boycott the betrayal of Brexit.

A Church for England: Guarding the nation’s soul

The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, which meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life.

The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home.

Nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation, which is why nations are talked about so often in the Bible. Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like. It is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.

This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation.

George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago a kind friend introduced me to the folk group Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song especially:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots

We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, ‘Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil, for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters’.

The task of the Church of England is to provide fresh living water to our nation and by doing so to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society and the church dies.

These words: I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible… I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that. In England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other.

(Developing thoughts from this old post)

Well what would you do about Brexit?

As a committed supporter of the UK leaving the European Union – you might have noticed – you will understand the strong sense of despondency that has been settling upon me over recent weeks. It really is quite a remarkable achievement for Theresa May to have united the Johnson brothers in opposing her plan. The flaws in what she has negotiated have been rehearsed extensively elsewhere; for me, the crucial point is that we will end up with less sovereignty than before the Referendum. If this passes the House of Commons then the Conservative party will deserve to be renamed as the BBP – the Brexit Betrayal Party. They will be defined by that one act against the democratic will of the United Kingdom and will deserve to fade away into ignominy.

It is a fair question, however, to ask ‘Well what would you do?’ It is comparatively easy to carp from the sidelines about the omnishambles of this present government; it is rather more difficult to say precisely what would be done instead. It is not that Theresa May is without virtues – I would credit her with duty, diligence and courage at least. It is simply that her framework for understanding this issue would appear to have been captured (after the departure of her advisor Nick Timothy) by the existing establishment, which clearly has an agenda for reversing the decision to leave the European Union. If the UK is truly to leave the orbit then Theresa May, sadly, has to be removed from office. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, or easily.

So what would I do? There is the proverbial joke about a man asking for directions (must be a made-up story – men never ask for directions) and being given the response ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here…’ So I shall answer the question in two parts, the first relating to what might have been done from immediately after the Referendum, the second relating to where we might go from where we are now. Then, finally, a religious comment – as I do believe that this is a matter that relates to the souls of nations, which are real things.

Immediately following the Referendum in 2016 the most important thing is that I would have stated explicitly that the people had decided that the UK was to leave the European Union, and that it would therefore have been what the EU calls “a third country”. The aim, therefore, would have been to establish a framework of relationship between the UK and the EU on that basis. This was very much the thrust of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech – the ‘deep and special partnership’ and so on – but because there was no emphasis upon the nature of the UK as a third country, with all that is implied by that description, the clear thrust of the Referendum verdict has been steadily diluted and diminished into the dog’s breakfast of the Withdrawal Agreement. At so many points those who benefit from the institutional status quo have pointed to areas where they didn’t want the UK to be treated as a third country – this even applies to committed Brexiters like David Davis. Truly this is ‘have cake and eat it’ territory. Instead of all that, there needed to be a hard-headed embrace of the only long-term sustainable position, that we are to be a third country with all that this meant. We could then build close arrangements with the EU from that stable foundation, in ways that are mutually acceptable. Instead we have had this panicked attempt to try and preserve what is unsalvageable.

So where to go from where we are now? Sadly, I think the only way forward that does not promise to rend our social fabric from top to bottom is what is called a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which I’d prefer to call a World Trade Brexit. I believe that the threats to our economy from this are exaggerated. There are threats, and they are not trivial, but even the Project Fear forecasts from the establishment indicate that a no deal Brexit would be less damaging than the recession following the financial crisis of 2008. We need – our political class needs – to have a much wider horizon for their thinking than simply the first few months of possible disruption. It beggars belief that the long term future of our country is being sold for the mess of pottage that is a few months of economic turbulence. I would also desire to see an enthusiastic and rapid embrace of what is called CANZUK – an agreement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand that builds upon our common shared inheritance. Fleshing that out might need another article though.

Which brings me to my theological point. A good rule of thumb for a priest is ‘God is not in the drama’ – that is, when emotions are in a heightened state, and all around are losing their heads and blaming it on others. This is the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ – and God is found in the still, small voice of calm. What we most need at this point in time is not vehement advocacy but rather a slow and careful delineation of disagreement between those opposed to the EU and those in favour. I do not recognise myself in the regular caricatures of what a Brexit supporter is supposed to believe; doubtless Remainers have the same experience.

I would hope that such a process might lead to a reconciliation between the different parts of our nation, which are so strenuously opposed to each other at this time. It is understandable why that is the case – the vote for Brexit was an immense shock to the dominant consciousness of our time, and it will take time for all of us to adjust to what it meant. Yet we do need to leave the European Union. That choice was a long time coming, and not the consequence of short-term campaigns or slogans on the side of a bus. If that choice is overturned by the establishment – against the Referendum, the votes of the House of Commons and the manifestoes of over 80% of those elected at the last general election – then I do fear for what is to come. It might be diabolical.

Archbishops should stick to theology

It is not uncommon for religious leaders to come under criticism when they decide to venture into contentious areas of political dispute. There have been many headlines recently about Archbishop Justin Welby, who has been recommending certain changes to our economic arrangements. My politics and those of the Archbishop are distinct but, to channel the remark often attributed to Voltaire, I disagree with what he says but would defend to the death his right to say it.

The desire to silence religious voices on political questions has many aspects, one of which is distinct to our own society. In general, those in power do not wish to be criticised so, when those in positions of religious leadership offer up criticism, they will undoubtedly be attacked for doing so by those who are either in positions of power themselves or who benefit from the status quo in other ways.

This flags up the most common form of political engagement by religious leaders in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which is that undertaken by the religious prophets. Prophecy in Scripture is often misunderstood as being centrally about predictions of a dire future. Such predictions do exist – even Jesus employs them – but they are always secondary to the principal task of the prophet which is two-fold: to call the people of Israel (and the Church) back to the right worship of God, and to call them to establish social justice, and ensure that nobody is excluded from sharing in the life of the wider community.

When this doesn’t happen, the prophet points out that terrible things follow in consequence. To put that in different terms, the prophet points out that if the people are not obedient to God, then they cannot flourish. The most pointed and political form that this takes in the Bible comes when the prophet Jeremiah is criticising the Royal court and says that the army of Babylon will destroy Jerusalem – which duly happened in 586 BC.

So there is a general truth that those in positions of political power do not like to be criticised, as it might threaten their hold upon that power. Yet there is also something distinctly English about a desire to have apolitical clergy, and it goes back to the experience of the Civil War, and the way in which religious enthusiasm took definite political form in the shape of the New Model Army and Cromwell’s abuses.

After that point, any form of religious enthusiasm was inherently suspect. The Church of England accepted a role in society which was essentially that of a neutered house pet. It received lots of grace and favour and a position of privilege, but it was prevented from the most central form of authenticity available to it, and has been unable to reproduce.

This is the legacy with which contemporary religious leaders – most especially Anglican leaders – have to deal. It isn’t simply a straightforward clash with those in power who wish to hold on to their power, and their various cheerleaders in the media and wider society. No, there is a perception still current that for an Anglican to express political opinions is simply not the done thing.

That pattern of life is slowly breaking down, as part and parcel of the way in which the whole notion of what it is to be English or British, or Christian or secular, is breaking down more broadly.

So does this mean that the Church of England needs to identify itself with one particular political party or stance? I would argue not, but with a very significant caveat. The principal reason why not is simply that faithful Christians can be found across the whole political spectrum, and what marks out the Christian point of view is not so much being left or right as recognising that their political perspectives are less important than their religious ones. Which means, to go back to the example of the prophets, not letting any ideology get in the way of submission to God – for that would be what the Bible calls idolatry. It also means being on guard, over against oneself as much as others, not to deceive ourselves about our motives, and to always seek to have a motivation which expresses love for neighbour rather than simply being a cover for our own needs, whether those be naked financial self-interest or the temptation to indulge in nationalistic or even internationalistic fantasy.

The caveat is that I don’t believe it is open to Christians to sit upon the fence when there are issues of immense political importance being decided upon. My model for this is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the 1930s, spent much time with friends in England, including the great Anglican Bishop George Bell, and who could easily have sat out the Second World War in safety in England or the United States. Instead, he chose to return to Germany in order to take part in the struggle against Hitler, eventually being executed by the Nazis for his part in the assassination plot. Shortly after returning to Germany he wrote to a friend in the United States saying, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Whenever there is a great question of public life to be decided, each Christian must resolve within their own heart and soul what it is that is God’s will. It will almost certainly not be an easy discernment, for political questions in this life by their very nature do not commonly admit to simple, coherent and complete solutions – indeed, the idea that there are such is something of an indicator that an ideology is being deployed, rather than a properly prayerful discernment.

Yet in all the discussions, as much as any political decision debated, decided and argued for, perhaps the real hallmark of a Christian perspective is the grace with which that position is held, and the capacity to listen to alternatives and find common ground with opponents. Christians are called to speak, and must not accept being excluded from the conversation, yet must also bear themselves as those who are dependent upon the virtues of another. We are the ones who do not scapegoat, who do not victimise, who do not project – for it is only through the merits of the one who received all those things from the world that we at all acceptable.