“It was beginning to seem like there would never be a Brexit bishop,” began the blog post on 1st April this year, a date which was lost on the good majority of readers as they whooped and cyber-fist-bumped the Rt Rev’d April Hooker for her “stirring and truer words” about the need for the UK to leave the European Union. It is now July; the EU Referendum is past; it looks as though we are leaving (it may take some time); and one bishop really has girded his loins and decided to come out.
The Rt Rev’d Mark Rylands is Bishop of Shrewsbury. In his letter to the Church Times, he sets out clearly, cogently, intelligently and faithfully why he, as a bishop in the Church of England, believes the UK will be better off out of the EU, in particular because of what it could mean for the church’s mission. It is worth noting that his coming out as a Brexit Bishop was initially a cause of disbelief among his fellow clergy, followed by “lively conversation” and then some “gentle mocking”. Please don’t read over those apparently affable reactions without considering that incredulity may be infused with contempt; “lively conversation” may be interspersed with derision and disparagement; and “gentle mocking” may tease and taunt, but beneath the chaff is the condescending sneer of those who know better, which easily becomes an expression of ‘hate’.
Does the Dean of Exeter think the Bishop of Shrewsbury is “stupid”? Does the Dean of Manchester believe the Brexit Bishop is “racist”? Does the Dean Emeritus of Durham berate him for acquiring a few new fascist and anti-Semitic “friends”? Is this the new division: Remain sheep and Brexit goats? Is this what Mark Rylands meant by “lively conversation” and “gentle mocking”? To his letter:
Why I voted for Brexit
At my bishops’ cell group in May, I came out as a Brexit bishop. My episcopal friends, at first, did not believe me. The following 24 hours, brought some lively conversation mixed with a certain amount of gentle mocking.
Yes, I voted to leave the EU. For all the usual reasons that were cited over the past months – democratic deficit, huge central staff salaries, waste of resources in Brussels and Strasbourg, loss of both sovereignty and oversight of UK laws- I have long hoped for reformation of the EU. In February, I felt pity for David Cameron hailing a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It showed that the EU leaders did not see the need for any reform. It smacked of arrogance.
Whilst in agreement with the EU’s outlook on tackling climate change and its policies on GM seeds, there were other reasons why I voted to Leave:
The EU’s commitment to its member states means it can be a bad neighbour to outsiders. Its actions impact adversely on poorer countries through various trade policies, most notably the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The EU’s export subsidies for EU agricultural products have disastrous consequences on food security and undercut agricultural sectors in the poorest nations. CAP is bad news for Africa. Jesus teaches us that our neighbour is not just our next door neighbour but everyone. Leaving the EU does not mean shunning Europe. We are Europeans and we will still have strong relationships with EU nations. Being able to make our own trade agreements, however, gives us opportunity to be more globally linked.
The EU does not seem to be good news for the poorest nations in the Eurozone. Countries in the single currency, struggling economically, appear stuck with low growth. Unable to devalue their currency, they are trapped in a rut of depression. Youth unemployment in Spain, Greece and Italy has soared and extremist political groups are gaining a strong foothold.
The UK has a proud history of welcoming migrants and has benefitted from the presence and contribution migrants make to society. Unrestricted EU immigration, however, means that we end up discriminating against non-EU nationals. This seems especially perverse when the UK has strong relationships with many other countries of the world through the Commonwealth, not just with the EU. The barriers to employing people from overseas, beyond the EU, have become more numerous. For a Church in the UK that is weak in mission, it would be particularly welcome to have greater freedom to invite missionaries from the global south to help us evangelise our country and rediscover our Christian roots.
Unrestricted EU immigration has been adversely affecting the poorest people in the UK. It may seem great if you want to employ a plumber, a nanny or a builder but to those competing with immigrants for jobs, houses or places at schools, it looks very different.
As we approach life ahead, post referendum, here are a few ways God may beckon us to build bridges, heal divisions and bring unity.
1. Listening to the marginalised: Our hope is in Christ who unites all of us. The referendum has highlighted fault lines and divisions in our society. Churches are called, like Christ, to stand with the voiceless and the marginalised. Some of those voices have been racist and xenophobic. Undoubtedly, this is the case and we are not aligning with that. We must, however, align ourselves with those who feel unheard, not allowing them to be dismissed as ‘uneducated’ and ‘stupid’. Why are so many people so angry? The new work around Mission on urban estates may have something to teach us here. But let’s not forget the rural poor have also spoken loud and clear in this referendum. How can we hear these voices, discern where we need to lament and learn how best to respond?
2. Hospitality: many churches already offer extensive ministry of hospitality to migrants and minority ethnic communities. Can we learn from those who model good practice? A question for Churches Together Groups to put on their agenda for the next meeting: How may we better demonstrate and bring reassurance of our care for EU citizens and other foreign nationals in our communities?
3. Being in Europe does not mean you have to be in the EU. All across the UK there are towns and villages twinned with towns and villages in France and Germany. And there are many dioceses that have formal links with other dioceses across Europe. Sharing meals and hospitality; exploring faith and ideas, enjoying laughter and conversation with our neighbours across the channel: Let’s do more of it! Such hospitality can strengthen our bonds of friendship more than any policy or agreement. After all, loving football does not mean you have to love FIFA.
If you pray, please do so for the witness and courage of Mark Rylands, Bishop of Shrewsbury. He understands the unification of ethics and politics; of moral duties and the exercise of virtue. He views Brexit in the context of God’s comprehensive governance and divine jurisprudence. He reshapes the geo-political ethic to comply with the doctrine of Christian compassion and salvation. He is prepared to speculate on a different truth from that set forth by the Established Episcopacy. In short, Mark Rylands interprets distinctively the nature of European goodness, and preaches a higher practical judgment; a greater pleasure and happiness. The Church needs a few more like him.