If one anti-Brexit argument persists within the clergy hierarchy of the Church of England, it is that the UK’s departure from the European Union is a fundamentally ‘un-Christian’ pursuit. The belief that we “pull up the drawbridge”, “withdraw from the world”, “stop working with our neighbours”, “cease finding common ground”, “give up influencing for good” is pervasive: Brexit is bad because it is the isolationist, xenophobic, nostalgic dream of little Englanders, if not of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists. Brexiteer Christians are blinded by nationalistic bigotry and are naively fomenting apocalypse: there is no place in the Church of the Enlightenment for those who identify with the narrow, sectarian parochialism of a national democratic polity. No informed, intelligent or discerning Christian could possibly be so spiritually witless or theologically illiterate as to advocate withdrawal from the EU.
But there is a Christian and biblical case for Brexit, which derives from a particular apprehension of the temporal order: ‘..the most High divided to the nations their inheritance’ (Deut 32:8). The God who made nations, tribes, people and tongues (Gen 35:11; Isa. 14:26; Acts 17:26) did so in order to distinguish between ethnic lineage, political culture, religious beliefs and territorial boundaries. The nations are not only disparate and divided, but of variable potency and purpose (Gen 25:23): they are not all ‘equal’, and cannot be made so by universalist prescriptive decree.
It is principally the EU’s anti-democratic polity which concerns Christians right across Europe, not just in the UK. Referendum results which do not accord with the Union’s “ever closer union” trajectory are routinely discounted; and democratically-elected governments which do not abide by the fiscal rules of ‘economic governance’ are summarily replaced by EU technocrats. The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) is often adduced to support the divine institution of the nation state, by which understanding any man-made attempt to bring an end to the curse of linguistic and cultural pluralism is considered contrary to the purposes of God. For some, the pride and arrogance of Babel are mirrored in the aloofness and anti-democratic unaccountability of Brussels and Strasbourg: the modern age has tended to construe all authority as political authority, and so the notion of divine authority has become increasingly puzzling to it.
Pluriformity in the world order is a capacity for different things to transpire and succeed one another within a total framework of intelligibility which allows for their generic relationships to be understood. This demands a notion of governmental authority which is attuned to a biblical hermeneutic as well as the traditional Anglican rubric of scripture, tradition and reason.
But the modern British State is distinct from the ancient biblical conception of nationhood – not so much by ideologies of identity, ethnicity, religion or culture, but by its model of governance, protected borders, military security and an organic social concord propagated by a national system of education, a common language, currency, taxation, justice and the rule of law. It is dangerous to draw too precise parallels between historic conceptions of nationhood and those of the present, or even of past empires and the modern European one. Nevertheless, certain parallels may be observed, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness…. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us (After Virtue, 2007:263).
And MacIntyre is uncompromising in his observation of both the cause of and solution to the pervasive social pessimism:
This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict (ibid).
The localised attributes of national sovereignty and community civility are fundamentally challenged by the overriding and coercive moral-political ‘Euro-nationalism’ which has emerged from Brussels and Strasbourg. MacIntyre doesn’t specify the secular darkness of the European Union, but by invoking St Benedict, the reputed founder of Western monasticism, he alludes to lay communities comprised of individuals who are zealous for God; who are determined in their flawed brotherhood to reflect, worship and submit to a life of virtue for the good of human community. As St Benedict found, this is best achieved not by the grandiose visions of a prescriptive religious order, but by the conversion and renewal of individual hearts, who then dwell voluntarily in autonomous communities of mutual service and submission under the authority of a local abbot.
Some might call it ‘subsidiarity’.
While the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community (/European Economic Community) were devout Christians intent on forging a European union in order to neutralise the means of production and negate those nationalisms which historically had led to war, it has become increasingly apparent that the project of “ever closer union” is deeper than mere matters of politics and economics. The objective is to create a distinct European cultural identity, if not a ‘A Soul for Europe‘ – a project with a declared mission statement which is somewhat antithetical to The Rule of St Benedict: “We connect communities in order to build a common European public space and a culture of proactive citizenship.” The group is supported by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), the objective of which is “To monitor the political process of the European Union in all areas of interest for the Church”. The values of ‘A Soul for Europe’ are European to the extent that they are influenced by the heritage of Christendom and the politics of the Enlightenment, but religious liberty is imperilled by the imposition of a secularised concept of human rights. Recall the fate of Rocco Buttiglione – Italy’s nominated European Commissioner in 2004 – who was rejected when his orthodox Christian views on matters of gender and sexual morality became known to his parliamentary inquisitors. There are justifiable fears that there is diminishing ‘public space’ in this socially-liberal project for adherents of Christian social conservatism.
The most cursory reading of the Bible suggests that God’s design is for diversity and plurality, and for the executive levers of power to be held in tension in order to mitigate sin and corruption by resisting political centralisation and social uniformity. Thus the sovereignty which hinges on currency – “render unto Caesar” – is inviolable. As the Talmud says: “He is the king of the country whose coin is current in the country”, and so the euro must be resisted because it diminishes economic independence, restricts national governance and subverts democracy. The story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) suggests that those in authority are not free to pursue any policy they please or to ride roughshod over the rights of the poor: God demands justice and peace above economic conviction. When these are ignored, we witness increases in civil unrest and nationalist idolatry, principally because un-owned traditions are imposing themselves on public life, and the substance of community is no longer held in common.
Christians for whom the political imperatives are to protect human life, respect human dignity, encourage the family and maintain individual liberties find it increasingly difficult to do so in an intolerant political union where morality is relative but always subject to the ethical primacy of secularity. Christians in Europe may be free to worship in their church buildings, but increasingly less may they walk in spirit and in truth in the public space.
There is a sense of solidarity, like charity, which begins at home. It is discovered by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods. There are ways of balancing national loyalty with wider fraternity without assertions of nationalist supremacy. Articulated by flawed moral agents of partial political understanding, they may not always get the balance right, but their vision is essentially one of a Europe in voluntary communion with its constituent members, rather than one which imposes its own infallible sense of legitimacy and serves the will to power. Brexit is almost Benedictine in its conception of the good insofar as the participatory quest begins with the individual and is thence nurtured by and in a local community. And that community is authentic because it is spontaneous, organic and consensual. It may not represent visible unity, but it is certainly a reflection of peaceful collaboration, reciprocal interdependence, and a witness to an alternative Europe.