bishops letter brexit
Church of England

Brexit: open letter reveals Bishops split 60:40 on Government’s approach

The open letter on Brexit published yesterday by a group of Diocesan Bishops is interesting on a number of levels, not least of which is the fact that it is signed by 25 of their number, which is to say it wasn’t signed by 17 of them. The non-signatories might of course have been touring up the Amalfi Coast or plagued by IT demons and so unable to access urgent email winging its way from Leeds (of which more anon), but more likely is it that they felt they couldn’t put their names to it for one reason or other, and one wonders what those reasons may be.

Setting aside the fact that so many Diocesan Bishops have not in recent decades (/centuries?) issued an open letter on the moral degradation of the nation or the urgent need for repentance on salvation (which is perhaps not so pressing a matter for them as EU membership appears to be [or there is less unanimity?]), this open letter on Brexit is, at first reading, a perfectly reasonable appeal, prioritising, of necessity, and as Jesus exhorted, the potential consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (that is, a clean, global Brexit on WTO terms) on the poor and disenfranchised. The Bishops exhort peace and reconciliation, which is what all Christians want. However:

..we also have particular concerns about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit to those least resilient to economic shocks.

Note the use of ‘shocks’ here. There may, of course, be a shock or two, but since Boris Johnson entered No.10 and Sajid Javid No.11 and Michael Gove the Duchy of Lancaster (if one enters that), preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit (that is, a clean, global Brexit on WTO terms) have been stepped up considerably in order to mitigate if not totally avert any kind of shock at all. Yet the Bishops take the essential Guardian line (which is that of the Remainer establishment), that economic shocks are inevitable. They simply aren’t.

In 2016 we were warned by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, that a ‘Leave’ result would cause an “immediate and profound” economic shock, with growth between 3% and 6% lower. Businesses would decamp to the Continent, unemployment would soar, and there would need to be an emergency budget with inevitable increases in taxation. We were told (and ‘we’ here includes the poor) in no uncertain terms that we would all be made poorer – not only by the long-term effects of Brexit, but the immediate effects of voting ‘Leave’.

There were no immediate or profound economic shocks.

They continue:

As bishops with pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England, we respond to the call by Jesus to tell the truth and defend the poor. We also recognise that our obligations go beyond England and impact on relations with the wider UK and our neighbours in the EU.

When Bishops tell the truth about Brexit, is it the truth? Is their episcopal truth the only truth, or have we not seen over the past three years that the truth is many-sided, and that a dogmatic truth stated today is seen to be questionable tomorrow and a downright lie the day after?

And note the emphasis on “our neigbours in the EU”. What about our neighbours in Africa? What about our neighbours in Australia and New Zealand? Did not Jesus teach that our neighbours are not those who live literally next door, as the Continent is to the UK, but those who dwell all over? The world is our neighbour, but the Bishops don’t mention the positive impact of Brexit on our neigbours in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Don’t the Bishops know that the EU actually harms the poorest of these nations by dumping cheap food and putting local farmers out of business? Don’t they know that Brexit offers the UK an opportunity to trade freely with these nations, and so improve the plight of the poorest both there and here with cheaper imports of food and clothing? Why don’t they mention this opportunity?

Exiting the EU without an agreement is likely to have a massive impact on all our people and the Government is rightly preparing for this outcome. The Government believes that leaving the EU on 31 October is essential to restoring trust and confidence. It is unlikely, however, that leaving without an agreement, regardless of consequences, will lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country. “Getting Brexit done” will not happen on exit day, and we have to be transparent about the years of work ahead of us in bringing the country together for a better future. We also need to be frank about the potential costs.

Note that it is the act of leaving without an agreement which hinders peace and reconciliation. This is true. But the Bishops give scant regard for “leaving the EU on 31 October is essential to restoring trust and confidence”. They pass over the Government’s belief as though it is of little concern. Is a ‘no deal’ Brexit (that is, a clean, global Brexit on WTO terms) worse for peace and reconciliation than no Brexit at all? Which is the lesser evil?

And who ever said “Getting Brexit done” would take a day? One doesn’t unravel 40 years over ‘ever closer union’ overnight: Brexit will be an incremental, organic process, which would be the conservative approach. If the Bishops “need to be frank about the potential costs” they might also be frank about the potential benefits. They are exhorted, after all, to tell the truth.

Our main social and political priority must be to leave well, paying particular attention to the impact of political decisions on those most vulnerable.

This is what the Government is busying itself with doing. It might help the essential and urgent task if Bishops didn’t just play Jeremiah and preach woe unto the poor, but shone a little Josiah and entertained the blessings of cleansing the temple.

We hold different views about Brexit and how our country should proceed from here. However, although we agree that respecting a public vote is essential, democracy and committed debate do not end after the counting of votes. Our concern for the common good leads us to express concern about a number of matters. Our conviction is that good governance can only ever be based on the confidence of the governed, and that includes minorities whose voice is not as loud as others.

There is something deeply patronising, if not disinforming about this paragraph. Setting aside the assertion that democracy doesn’t end after the counting of votes (where have we heard that before? [of which more anon]), it seems to have escaped the Bishops’ notice that the voices of minorities are now very often heard well above the voices of the majority, not only in terms of the ‘protected characteristics’ of ethnicity, sex/gender, sexuality and disability, but also politically: we hear far more about the agendas of the Greens and the Women’s Equality Party, for example, than we do about (say) the virtues of Christian Socialism or Conservative views on the nuclear family. And was not the voice of the poor (if they be a minority talked of here) heard well and clear in the EU Referendum? They may have voted Leave for variable reasons, but one of them wasn’t that they weren’t told Brexit would make them poorer. Why do Bishops patronise the poor? Haven’t they been warned by one of their number that the Church of England is seen to have an agenda which is set by academia, moneyed elites and the secular media? If good governance is based on the confidence of the governed, it would help if Bishops entertained the possibility that minorities knew and understood precisely what they were voting for, and that they don’t need higher enlightened ones to guard them from the consequences of their democratic decision.

Seeing the evidence of division in every part of England, we are deeply concerned about:

Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent, especially given the abuse and threats levelled at MPs doing their job.
The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.
The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit: poor people, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe must be listened to and respected.
The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English: respect for the concerns on both sides of the border is essential.
The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.
Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness.

The language used in this list is revealing: it is itself polarising, if not a little abusive. You may think you’ve heard some of these concerns expressed before (of which more anon), but personal abuse levelled at MPs has occasionally been known to emanate from episcopal circles (or is that “the truth”?), and the urgent need for the reframing of the language of political discourse extends to open letters from Diocesan Bishops.

If “leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices”, why are Bishops not honest about the benefits of political choices? Why do all the mitred Eeyores drown out all the Tiggers? What happened to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s vision for a “wide and liberal” Brexit future?  “This is a moment to reimagine Britain,” he exclaimed with optimism, “a moment of potential opportunity… It is a moment of challenge, but challenge that as a nation can be overcome with the right practices, values, culture and spirit.” He oozed Tiggerishly: “This could be a time of liberation, of seizing and defining the future..” But perhaps mindful of his episcopal brethren, he added: “..or it could be one in which the present problems seize our national future and define us.”

Perhaps the most revealing part of this letter is the cavalier manner in which these Church of England Bishops kick around England and the English. Who (exactly who) is treating peace in Ireland as “a ball to be kicked around by the English”? Didn’t the Welsh also vote to leave the EU? What about Scottish Brexiteers? Don’t they kick balls? What about the DUP? Could you imagine the absolute stink if these Bishops had dared suggest that peace in Ireland (not Northern Ireland? It’s a different country, isn’t it?) was being kicked around by Irish Unionists? But the English? Well, who cares if they’re smeared as being indifferent to the threats of resurgent terrorism?

And note there is no condemnation of such threats; simply an acknowledged inevitability that Brexit imperils peace. Shouldn’t Bishops denounce this, and assert that terrorism is never justified, and that democracy should not be undermined or negated by the IRA threats?

Why does English identity cause a particular problem to these Bishops, when it’s Scottish nationalism that threatens to tear the Union apart? Why must attention be paid to “the meaning of Englishness” but not the meaning of Scottishness? Or the meaning of Welshness? Or the meaning of (Northern) Irishness? Why is Scottish nationalism or Welsh nationalism considered a virtue in the Anglican sphere, but English nationalism smeared as the spawn of Satan?

And of course the sovereignty of Parliament “is not just an empty term”, but nor is the sovereignty of the people, or the sovereignty of God. Sovereignty may be variously apprehended by political philosophers and theologians, and these understandings may be in tension if not mutual exclusion, but the sovereignty of Parliament becomes a manifestly impoverished if not empty term when it assumes sovereignty over the sovereignty it delegates to the people. In a democracy, sovereignty flows up, not down. Parliament does not produce national unity; it is an expression of a pre-existing unity based upon the principle of the consent of the minority to be governed by the majority.

Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion. We continue to serve, regardless of political persuasion. We invite politicians to pay attention with us to the concerns we register above and encourage a recovery of civil debate and reconciliation.

Perhaps Bishops might do unto politicians (especially Tory ones) as they would be done by.

And the signatories. Note they are all alphabetical, except one, the undoubted fons et origo of this epistle (of which more now):

The Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds
The Rt Revd Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough
The Rt Revd Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter
The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford
The Rt Revd Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester
The Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol
The Rt Revd Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth
The Rt Revd Richard Frith, Bishop of Hereford
The Rt Revd Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
The Rt Revd Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester
The Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield
The Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester
The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Gregory Clayton Smith, Bishop of St Albans
The Rt Revd Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester
The Rt Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich
The Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop Of Manchester
The Rt Revd Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford
The Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

So much of this letter is well meant if not entirely well said, but what say the 40% of Diocesan Bishops who did not sign?