“In less than two years we will have a referendum on our place in Europe,” writes the Archbishop of Canterbury on ‘Reimagining Europe‘ – the Church’s new blog dedicated to “Encouraging ethical reflection and a values based debate on Britain’s relationship with Europe ahead of the referendum”. And straight away we hit the epistemic distance between the spiritual vision and the political reality: this is not a referendum about Britain’s place in Europe, but Britain’s place in the European Union. They are not synonymous, though it manifestly suits the paracletes of ‘Yes’ to raise the narrative spectre of political paralysis, cultural solitude, historic negation, economic exclusion and geographic isolation of life outside “Europe”. One cannot have a “relationship” with that of which one is intrinsically, essentially and congenitally already a part.
“There will be passionate arguments on both sides,” says Archbishop Justin. Indeed there will be, and one has to hand it to the Church of England that it has created a blog to encourage reflection and debate on both sides. While there is no doubt about which side the bishops are on, they are manifestly facilitating debate and, hopefully, listening to the laity. The Archbishop continues:
People will say that we should not take the risk of leaving, others that it is less of a risk than staying. There will be talk of national sovereignty, of national confidence, of repatriation of laws, or being bound by European laws over which we have no control. The only certainty is that there will be much heat, probably slightly less light, but that it is a hugely important decision, with thoughtful and committed people, including Christians, on both sides.
Impeccable via media. It would indeed be good to have ethical reflection which shines more light than it produces heat, but that is a matter for the blog’s editors and its commenting community, should it acquire one. And that acquisition will depend very much upon the breadth of contributors invited to participate (..before you ask, the answer’s yes. [Ed.]), and the extent of the freedom of speech permitted in the comment threads. There is nothing more frustrating than “ethical reflection” with a pre-ordained ethic; or “values based debate” which censors those values with which it does not agree.
“But what about those in the UK for whom our membership, or withdrawal, from the Union, is not a major question,” the Archbishop asks. “Those for whom the needs and responsibilities of each day take precedence, and mention of political debates such as this leave them cold?”
With enormous respect to the Archbishop, “the needs and responsibilities of each day” naturally take precedence over all “political debates” – even for political anoraks – by essential subsistence and breathing necessity. No one is debating “Europe” before eating breakfast, putting out the rubbish or driving their kids to school. And yet “Europe” affects every one of the “needs and responsibilities of each day” – an endless stream of food taxes, working directives and transport regulations over which the people have no power to change or appeal to repeal. Those for whom our EU membership “is not a major question” are simply unaware that it is, and the mission then becomes one of education. But a good first lesson would be dealing with the primordial flawed “Europe” supposition, and inculcating the corrective equation: Europe ≠ EU.
Reimagining Europe is not solely a Church of England initiative: the Church of Scotland is also on board, “..whose mediating and reconciling role during and after the Scottish referendum campaign is something we should all look to as a model for how the Church can engage in divisive debates”. Their Moderator, the Rt Rev’d Dr Angus Morrison, writes:
I hope that through this blog we can counter a merely self-serving attitude by encouraging readers to reflect rather on these questions: ‘How will your vote help those less fortunate than yourself?’ and ‘How will you show unselfish consideration for your neighbour?’
It seems an affront to Christian compassion to respond: “By restoring my neigbour’s right to self-determination.” And yet that is the beginning of political wisdom, or, at least, along the road to self-realisation and a liberated assertion of identity. If a man cannot be free in fellowship, he is not whole in the world. The Moderator takes us through a few questions of identity and matters of nationhood. But then we get:
Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, where the Church of Scotland chose to remain impartial, our General Assembly does have a longstanding view that continued EU membership is in the best interests of Scotland, Britain and the EU. This of course does not mean that we will be telling people from the pulpit how they should vote..
And yet it does tell people how they should vote: the pulpit might not be an architectural construct, but the sociological truth is conveyed by the word. A “longstanding view” of “best interests” is not an ex cathedra pronouncement (of the sort recently issued by the Catholic Herald, seemingly incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and democratic self-determination), but it is clearly one which apprehends the Church’s universal mission in the context of contending against xenophobia, nationalism and crass assertions of populism, which, we are repeatedly told, the European Union exists to fulfil.
But the Moderator’s asservation highlights a fundamental theo-political disparity which he does not address, perhaps because he can’t – at least with rational integrity. Why should a church which remained scrupulously impartial on the matter of Scotland’s membership of a greater political union be so incontrovertibly partisan about the UK’s membership of a greater political union? What questions of national identity, sovereignty, freedom, justice and democracy are posed by Scotland’s membership of the UK which are not similarly tendered by the UK’s membership of the EU?
In contemplating these weighty matters, please be mindful of the greater need for luminescence over incandescence: God forbid that we might disagree badly.