One possible area of unanimity to be found over Brexit is simply that it is a mess. I do not believe that anyone can be happy with where we find ourselves. How can the church most help? How can the church best model a different way of engaging, both with the issue of Brexit and with each other across the divides, in such a way that we are a faithful and healing witness to the nation?
I would say: friendship. Jesus famously calls us friends, and I believe that there is something holy in the nature of Christian friendship which we are being called specifically to model at this time. A very good part of the recent letter from the Bishops of the Oxford Diocese stated: “There are leavers and remainers in every congregation, but this can never be our primary identity as Christians.”
Which is to say that there are values and aims which Christians hold that transcend any particular political claims. Christians share with each other not simply doctrinal claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, but also an awareness that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that progress in human affairs is ultimately and wholly dependent on the grace of God.
These shared values are then embodied in particular virtues – and it is those virtues which (as the Church has classically understood, following Aristotle) enable a genuine friendship to take hold. The virtues that we need today include hospitality to alternative points of view, humility in a shared search for the truth that we insist it is possible to find, patience in recognising how long this process may take – and over all these we must put on love, to bind them together.
Why, though, do we in the church find it so challenging to model such virtues? How is that we find it so difficult to be distinctive salt and light in this time of worldly tumult?
To act in a gracious way, turning the other cheek to those who seem to hurt us and trample over things that we hold precious, requires us to draw on spiritual reserves. To model a different pattern of life, the way of the Spirit rather than the way of the enemy, requires sustained practice. It is not something that comes easy to our flesh, which clings so hard to the ease of worldliness. It is always easier to say ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like this sinner’ than to say ‘I repent in dust and ashes’.
Might it be that we in the church struggle to demonstrate a distinctive witness of friendship across the Leave/Remain divide because we have fallen out of the practice of friendship within our own church life? We have spent many decades arguing with each other over matters of church order and sexuality, and that has come at a cost. We have not always enabled ‘good disagreement’ and have instead allowed the fruits of bitterness, strife and resentment to plant seeds. Have we used up all our spiritual reserves in internal dispute, leaving us incapable of withstanding worldly pressures when it comes to engaging with critical political issues like Brexit?
Our most important task, now as always, is to immerse ourselves in prayer, seeking the still small voice amidst the earthquake, wind and fire of Brexit. Such prayer would have the effect of loosening the hold that our opinions have upon us, as we remember and laugh at our own frailties. With humility, and forgiveness for others as well as for ourselves, we might be in a better position to see the truth of where we are, and thus the way to where God wishes us to be.
It will also enable us to be better friends. I am fond of Stanley Hauerwas’ ‘Modest Proposal for Peace’: let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other. In the same spirit, I suggest that we Christians agree that we will remain friends with those on the other side of political debate. We will seek the image of Christ in the face of our opponents; we will resolve to disagree gracefully, affirming that what we share is greater than what divides; we will repudiate a spirit of accusation in favour of a shared and humble recognition of mutual sinfulness. Above all, we will cling to an insistence that there is a truth here to be found, a truth which will set us free from this mess in which we have become embedded.
In doing so, I believe that we will be witnessing to our nation and our world that there is a better way for all human beings to follow. We will do justice to our faith, and to each other. Let’s be friends.