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.

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.

Brexit, the Church, and God’s bias to the poor

In 1983 the then Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard (once of the England cricket team) published a book entitled ‘Bias to the poor’. In it he argued that Scripture shows that God has a consistent preference for looking after the poor and weak of society, and that, to use the modern expression, God was a God of social justice.

This seems incontrovertible to me; that is, I do not think it possible for a person to be a Christian and not be concerned for those who are poor or marginalised or excluded from engaging with the wider society. The message of Scripture, perhaps best exemplified in the marvellous words of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel, are clear and consistent on this point.

The ‘bias to the poor’ is something that is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s self-understanding, and is something of a commonplace amongst clergy. However, I want to bring out one way in which I think the church has gone astray in its understanding of what this means. Put simply, I think the Church has confused the imperative of caring for the poor with one particular form that such caring might take and, moreover, missed elements of caring for the poor – of integrating them with wider society – which is of huge contemporary relevance.

To explain that point, I want to tell a story about King David – the story about how he was chosen. The prophet Samuel had previously chosen Saul to be the King of Israel – Saul was a fine, handsome, tall and muscular man, accomplished and acclaimed. He led Israel to disaster. When Samuel asked God to lead him to the new King, that he might anoint the King, Samuel was led to the sons of Jesse. Each one paraded before him, but God did not give his consent. Finally, Samuel asked Jesse – do you not have any other sons? And Jesse said, ‘there is still my youngest’ – and this was David. God said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected [Saul]. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)

Poverty in scripture is never simply about material wealth, but also about status in society. When Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, he brings a little child into their midst and says that unless they become like a little child they will not enter the Kingdom – and the point of this is that a little child has absolutely no status in society. This principle was embedded in many Christian practices down the centuries. In the Rule of St Benedict, for example, the monks are told that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”.

In other words, God doesn’t simply love the poor and seek for them to be given material relief. He also ‘often reveals’ his will through what is said by the poor. This is because those who have little stake in existing systems can often see those systems more clearly – as opposed to those who have a great stake in the existing systems (the High Priests) who lack such a perspective.

Which brings me to the Church of England. So far as I can tell, there isn’t a single member of the House of Bishops who is in favour of Brexit. Which means that, if we look at who tends to be against Brexit, and who tends to be for it, the Bishops are lining up with most of the rest of the establishment – and on the other side are the poor and excluded of British society.

The researcher Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, recently published a paper describing the attitudes and approaches of those who supported Brexit. He finds that such voters are not generally motivated by racism or cultural insularity (which are the usual, reflexive brickbats offered by those opposed to Brexit in order to reinforce a sense of moral superiority) but rather a combination of two things: a sense that, for decades, whole communities had been cut off from the increasing prosperity of wider British society; and, secondly, a sense that those who were making the decisions affecting those communities were more and more distant from the communities themselves. Hence the success of the slogan ‘take back control’.

So here we have large sections of British society who are poor and excluded – exactly the sort of people for whom the Bible expresses an especial concern – but who are entirely unrepresented in the hierarchy of the national church.

Something has gone very wrong.

In Ancient Israel, the role of prophet was one that had a particular place within the Royal Court. There is a fascinating story in the book of Jeremiah which details the conflict between the ’employed’ prophets in the Court – notably Hananiah – and the prophet from the North, Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah was foretelling disaster at the hands of the Babylonians, whereas Hananiah proclaimed that the Babylonians would be defeated. Hananiah, put simply, was telling the Royal Court what they wanted to hear, and preserving the Court in what we would today call a ‘bubble’, where they were unaware of what was happening in the wider political context. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was persecuted for his teaching – and he was proved correct.

The trouble with the Church of England is that it has allowed the bias to the poor to be restricted to the safe, middle-class and soft-socialist nostrums that constitute acceptable discourse for the mainstream centre-left of this country. In doing so, it has failed to recognise that God doesn’t simply care for the poor, he also speaks directly through them, most especially when they cry out for justice and liberty.

If the Church of England is serious about being a Church for the whole nation, especially its mission to the poor, it might do well to start listening to what God is saying through the poor of this country – or, if that is too much, perhaps even listen to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ on the subject of Brexit. After all, Anglicans were significantly more likely to vote for Brexit than the average. The Bishops don’t just represent the more affluent minority of the country, they also represent a much smaller minority of their own church. I just hope that God doesn’t have the same fate in mind for us that he did for Israel under Babylon.

How do you defend a nation?

Consider this statement from a leading US politician: “We’ve got to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws and encourages them to make the dangerous journey.” No, not Trump, that was Hillary Clinton when she was campaigning to be President. Personally I can’t fathom any moral justification for separating children from parents – and I’m glad the policy seems to be changing – but there is an issue here that needs to be addressed openly.

That issue is, simply, ‘how do you defend a nation?’

Some might say that there is no such thing as a ‘nation’ – just an agglomeration of individuals who happen to coincide by location. Such a viewpoint is useful to big business and bureaucracies for it makes their lives so much easier – there is less grit in the wheels of industry – and it is also why such perspectives tend towards support for the EU. There is an equal and opposite error which makes the nation the source of all value and meaning. One of the principal lessons of the twentieth century relates to the terror that can be unleashed when such a perspective is put into power – and the catastrophe consequent to this latter perspective goes a long way to explaining the attraction of the former.

I would want to argue against both these perspectives. I believe that there is such a thing as a healthy pride in national identity, one which avoids the Syclla of deracination and the Charybdis of fascism.

Nations are real things: there is such a thing as ‘England’ or ‘France, moreover, such things as nations can be born and thrive, they can also die. Which is why I think it does make sense to talk of ‘defending’ a nation. A nation is a group of people who (originally) share a particular territory, and in living upon that territory develop a cultural complex of language, law, morality and behaviour which is distinct from other such complexes in different parts of the world.

I believe that nations are not just real things, but that they are precious things. They are part of the glory of the human being – that we have the capacity to thrive in such diverse and multiform fashion. (This is, of course, on great display at the moment in Russia, not just in the teams playing football but even more so in the groups of fans who follow each team. This is why it makes sense to feel shame when we see England supporters behaving like Philistines in their journeys abroad – so far so good in this World Cup!)

It makes sense to identify with a nation – to say, for example, ‘I am English’ or ‘I am French’ – and to know what this means. Some, however – who tend to live in one of the major ‘world cities’ like London, and to have received at least a university level education – do not know what this sort of identification means, and they do not recognise any deficiency in their lives associated with it. The writer David Goodhart describes this contrast as being between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. The somewheres know where they are from and they draw value and strength from that identification. The anywheres do not identify with a particular location and do not feel any particular need to do so. Much of the dispute in our present political culture can be traced to this division between the somewheres – who will be concerned about national identity and so more resistant to immigration – and the anywheres – who are relaxed about national identity and so more open to immigration.

This debate tends to be reduced to one about racism, yet as I have argued before, the question here is not about race but about culture. After all, a significant element – possibly the overwhelming element – of national identity is the cultural expression of it. English culture, in common with other Western cultures, places a very great weight upon the notion of human rights, which is the modern term for a much more ancient notion emphasising the respect for the individual.

This respect is derived from Christianity and cannot properly be sustained without that religious foundation, the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore inherently worthy of respect, irrespective of any achievements or wealth or family connections that might otherwise be considered relevant. No, Western culture is built around the idea that there is something sacred about the particular human being.

Our mistake, however, is to think that the glory of an individual human being can be understood apart from the culture in which they came to birth. It is rather like admiring a flower without paying any attention to the ground into which it has planted its roots. In other words, an insistence on the sacredness of the individual does not have to blend with a disregard for the community, the culture, the nation of which they are a part. That is the mistake which our modern West has made, with such terrible consequences.

So, to return to my original question, how do we defend the nation? We defend it by living out the values and virtues that animate that nation, by recognising that, to take our own nation as an example, some things simply ‘aren’t English’, some things simply wouldn’t be done by someone who shares our values and perspectives upon life. We take steps to ensure that people who live within the nation are taught how to operate appropriately within it, learning the language, the laws, the customs that enable a free and easy inter-relationship between all who are sharing the same space. It also means being very clear when actions are taken which ‘aren’t English’ – and ensuring appropriate, vivid and clarificatory punishments for such things.

We need to hold our leaders to the same standard. When English politicians act in such a way as to nurture a sense of Englishness, all well and good. When they do something to undermine it, they too need to be brought up short and rebuked. Most of all, when something is pursued by the nation that brings shame upon us, it needs to be seen as detrimental to the national interest and renounced. What might do such a thing? Something like separating children from their parents in service of some bureaucratic edict. I think that would qualify.

Freedom needs authority and accountability

As a fairly classic introvert, when I have to go on a long train journey I like to book ahead and make use of the ‘quiet carriage’ – the one where people are asked not to use mobile phones (that is, not to have public conversations) or make any other excessive noise. Bliss for introverts!

On my most recent journey, coming back from Cornwall, I was sat opposite a mature couple, both of them teachers – and very quiet they were too. However, the same could not be said for many of the other occupants of the carriage. In particular there was a group of youths who were rather boisterous and a young mum whose progeny was well behaved, but who delighted in telling all and sundry about that progeny, and much else besides, on her mobile phone.

The teachers across from me became increasingly exasperated. When the ticket inspector came along, they asked him if he would be able to do anything. He demurred, clearly feeling rather awkward, and then commented ‘it’s alright, they’re getting off at the next stop’. Which they did, and the remainder of the journey was suitably restful.

However, am I alone in thinking that something has gone wrong with our society? This is in so many ways a trivial example, yet it is one that can give a clear insight into the issues. The train company had set up a carriage for the purpose of being quiet, and this was very clearly advertised within the carriage itself, and by announcements from the driver. That purpose was thwarted by two groups of people, either because they were unaware of the purpose of the carriage or because they didn’t care (I rather suspect the latter).

Those who had the responsibility for ensuring that the purpose of the quiet carriage was upheld were clearly uncomfortable at the thought of trying to ensure that this happened. I don’t blame the conductor for not wanting to make a scene. We are all too familiar with stories where someone tries to uphold civilised standards of behaviour and is then berated with a deluge of foul-mouthed invective (at best) from the transgressor. The teachers, I am sure, were also fully aware of the malign consequences that might have come their way from seeking to exercise any authority.

Our culture worships individual choice, and exalts it as one of the highest of human virtues. The notion that authority is something that is needed for human flourishing is not a comfortable one for us, we would much rather tell stories of heroic individualism, where the single will triumphs over the system.

In doing this we are rather like flowers that despise the soil in which they are nurtured, and on which they depend.

Where there is no recognised authority, those who are able to exercise their will the most clearly will be those who are strong in some way, either force of personality or simple physical strength. Physical intimidation has become a much more commonplace form of negotiation in our modern society, and this is not a sign of health. Without authority the weakest are pushed to the edge, for there is nothing to restrain the vicious.

Where there is a recognised authority, however, and where such authority is generally respected and followed, then a much safer general environment is established, and those fruits of civilisation that require a certain amount of gentility are enabled to flourish. Put differently, without a due regard for authority, we succumb to the dictatorship of morons.

Yet authority is not a single value that can be asserted on its own. How, after all, might we distinguish between competing claims for authority, between the different institutions of civic society, or between different individuals and groups within them? Any form of authority must eventually rest upon a social consensus around what has most authority – that which, when fully appealed to, is allowed to over-ride other claims. In other words, every form of social authority must ultimately rest on some form of religion.

This does not necessarily mean one particular religion – it need not even necessitate any general belief in a God or gods. What it means is that there is something which that society values and holds to be most important within its common life, and which acts as the keystone in the overall arch of shared values, and therefore the shared enforcement of those values.

Crucially, what it means is that those who are in a position to exercise authority are themselves able to be held accountable for what they do. Just as respect for authority would have enabled my train conductor to uphold the purpose of the quiet carriage, so too does a proper system of authority allow those who might be abused by a corrupt conductor (give me money to keep talking loudly) recourse to something higher.

Without this ‘something higher’ – what religious people call the transcendent – human relationships resolve down to something less than fully human, something far more fully explicable by biological processes or comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a flawed civilisation cannot last, and will be replaced by one that is still able to draw upon spiritual nourishment.

If we wish to live in a society that has recognisable continuity with the very best that our civilisation has enabled in previous centuries – if we wish to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and build sustainably upon their achievements – I rather think we need to pay due care and attention to the role that religion played in their culture. It is as if our forebears had paid in regular amounts of capital into a bank account, which we have now been drawing upon for quite some time – indeed, I would say we are now overdrawn.

To preserve what is excellent requires some account of what is excellent that is independent of our personal choices or whims. It needs an understanding of the transcendent; it needs a religion.

The only question that matters for us in this country is which religion shall be followed.

We need to sift the sixties

We are so caught up in the arguments following from our cultural fragmentation that we miss opportunities to step back and ask ‘how did we get here?’ Most historical explanations can go back as far as patience can take us, certainly I think the agricultural revolution is an oft-overlooked factor in our contemporary gender politics, yet it is surely the 1960s that are worth pondering as the background to our present malaise.

After all it was in the 1960s that ‘everything changed’. Traditional defence was pushed aside (as with the Lady Chatterley trial and the consequences of the Profumo affair); progressive laws were introduced with regard to abortion, sexual rights, divorce law and the abolition of capital punishment; popular (youth) culture transformed itself with new musical styles and the consequences of the ready availability of the contraceptive pill; changing patterns of work and home life leading to the equal pay act and so on.

So much of this seems unarguably good, yet I do believe that certain social currents were established in the 1960s that we now need to pay much closer attention to, and these seem to be coming into a focus around gender relations.

All right thinking people believe in equality of treatment for the sexes before the law. That, perhaps, is a weaselly phrase (who counts as ‘right thinking’, and who decides who counts?) yet it is only in the darkest corners of the internet that arguments against a full equality of treatment for one sex – or another – can be found.

Yet what this insistence upon equality of treatment seems to have set in train is the notion that men and women are functionally equivalent. This leads to some absurdities, as when a military force lowers the standards for entry (the US Marine Corps) in order to enable more women to enter. The ideal of an elite fighting force is being sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. This is an ultimately self-destructive path.

We need to learn once again that an acknowledgement of differences in the aggregate between different groups – as between men and women – does not necessitate the unequal treatment of any one individual man or woman. If there is a particular standard that needs to be reached in order to be a marine, let that standard be maintained. Some women will be able to achieve it. Of what worth is the achievement if it is known that the standards were lowered? Isn’t that in itself a deeply patronising and insulting stance to adopt?

There is now so much research indicating the profound differences between the typical man and the typical woman, in terms not simply of obvious biological externals but internal brain architecture and hormonal equilibriums. Remarkably, some of the most eloquent testimony comes from women who are transitioning to a male identity, and taking testosterone supplementation for that purpose – and who are profoundly shocked and chastened to discover the different ways in which male sexuality informs the psychology as a result of that extra testosterone.

What has often seemed to happen as a result of the liberation let loose by the 1960s is that women have been encouraged to be men, that women can do anything that a man can do. This seems to me to be such a profoundly mistaken approach; not only is it the case that making women into not-quite-good-enough men doesn’t help either sex, it also radically underestimates and undervalues the distinctively feminine strengths that women have always been able to bring to bear. The culture of feminism that so denounces patriarchy seems to have no conception of just how strongly men wish to please the women in their lives, and the impact that this has upon the power balance between the sexes.

What is worse, this mistaken evaluation of female strength has gone hand in hand with a vilification of male strength, and this has a current form in discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’. In a culture that has claimed that men are superfluous, and that has pushed that notion to its logical conclusion through the divorce courts, we have ended up with generations of young men that have been deprived, not just of contact with their fathers, but of contact with any truly virile examples of what a noble man might look like. Men need competition; boys need proper ‘rough and tumble’ if they are to learn both their own power and the importance of boundaries. What we now have are so many examples of rootless and hollow men causing chaos in ways large and small. The natural counter to this is not to continue taking away responsibility and authority from all men but rather to ensure that those men who bear authority are well equipped to do so. Which means we need to talk about virility and virtue – both words with distinctly masculine (vir) roots.

What seems to have happened is that an embrace of radical individualism has been allowed to undermine all the blessings that come from community cohesion. We need to strike a new balance between those two necessary elements of a healthy common life: not a return to some mythical bygone era in which everyone knew their place and stuck to it, nor an environment in which every single solitary person is allowed to follow their own desires irrespective of the harms that might follow from their choices, but rather a place in which the community can serve the individual and the individual in turn can serve the community. The truth is that neither can flourish without the other – the present emphasis on individual freedom and personal choice seems to have as its most salient feature a radical rise in personal misery and depression.

These things are all connected. As we see the consequences of choices made fifty years ago we need to sift them to work out what was good and what was bad, restoring a healthy discrimination and judgement that will enable all of us to flourish.