When the Times revealed on Monday that the Archbishop of Canterbury was “in talks” to chair a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ in order to avert a ‘no deal’ Brexit (that is, a clean, global Brexit on WTO terms), the tremors in Downing Street were felt in Blackpool. They tried to blame fracking, but those who had ears knew very well it was Boris Johnson stomping around No.10 in a fit of blind rage. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” he screamed at his CofE linkman SpAd Jonathan Hellewell.
There was a pause.
“It is better expressed as ‘troublesome’ or ‘meddlesome’ priest, Prime Minister,” Mr Hellewell responded, hoping to mollify the classicist PM with a nugget of historical trivia. He advised the Prime Minister to take deep breaths and reflect upon his recent success at the G7 summit in Biarritz, especially his breakfast with US President Donald Trump which, by all accounts, went swimmingly; and his vindication in porky-pie-gate.
But news of the Archbishop’s intervention in the countdown to Brexit didn’t go down very well at all with 52% of the country. Lambeth Palace had neither confirmed nor denied the Times‘ story, which simply added to the suspicion and mutterings of discontent. The Church of England’s ‘Daily Digest’ was indigestible:
…”warned”… “interfere”… “butt out”… were some of the more restrained responses. Brexity Twitter was incandescent, and Remainery Twitter was a bit miffed – especially the atheist-secular-humanist contingent who wondered what any sky-fairy worshipper had to contribute to the serious business of politics. And the questions raged: How could a Citizen’s Assembly be convened in such a short space of time? How would it be constituted? Who would be doing the selecting? Who would determine which ‘experts’ were invited to address Assembly members? How could the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had intervened forcefully during the EU Referendum to urge a ‘Remain’ vote, possibly be an impartial chair? How would he persuade Brexiteers of his impartiality? Had he even accepted the result of the Referendum? It wasn’t at all clear. One day it seemed so; on another, not so much. He seems to want a via media Brexit, which to many is really no Brexit at all.
Emails and DMs poured in (actually, trickled) to Cranmer’s Tower demanding some comment, but what is there to be said of an unconfirmed rumour? But then the letter inviting the Archbishop to chair this Citizens’ Assembly was published:
It wasn’t an irrational request: Justin Welby is highly experienced in fraught negotiations and intractable mediations. He has, after all, negotiated with warlords and stared down the barrel of a gun. The desire of his heart is peace and reconciliation: “The need for national healing and eventually for a move towards reconciliation is essential. It will take much time, a deep commitment to the common good, and contributions from every source including churches”, the Archbishop tweeted, as he proceeded to publish his response:
“It is an unexpected privilege to be asked to chair this proposed Citizens’ Forum on Brexit. In the past this kind of gathering has, in many places and in difficult situations, opened the way for careful deliberation if at the right time and genuinely representative.
“I am honoured to be approached and would be willing to accept in principle, subject to some conditions which have not yet been met. The main three are first, and indispensably, that the forum should not be a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form. That power can only be exercised by the government and MPs in parliament. A forum must be open to all possibilities. Second, that it has cross party support (although its members will not be politicians). Third, the process must have time to be properly organised.
“Jesus Christ is the source of reconciliation and healing for individuals and society. It is obviously right that among many others the churches should contribute to the emergence of a dynamic and united country post-Brexit, however it may be achieved. Every one of us must play the part they can in this task.
“The need for national healing and eventually for a move towards reconciliation is essential, and will take much time, a deep commitment to the common good, and contributions from every source. This Forum is only one of many different efforts being made inside the political world and across the country before and after Brexit. Every effort counts.
“Let us pray for all those in government, parliament and political leadership. Let us pray for the people of this country whose lives will be affected in many ways by the momentous decisions that are made.”
He opposes a ‘no deal’ Brexit because he believes that it represents a moral failure. That’s fair enough: the overwhelming majority of Brexiteers (actually, 100% of them) would very much like to leave the EU with trade deal, too, but an apparently insurmountable hurdle arose when the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ became conflated with ‘the deal’, and the only way of securing a trade deal appeared to be via a ‘backstop’ which negated national sovereignty, as Prime Minister Johnson has now made absolutely clear.
But those who initially berated the Archbishop of Canterbury for ‘interfering’ in Brexit need to reflect very carefully on his response. First (and foremost), this wasn’t his initiative; he was invited by a group of MPs to consider the possibility of chairing a Citizen’s Assembly in the hope of avoiding a ‘no deal’ Brexit. A journalist got wind of this, and reported it. He hadn’t accepted the invitation (and still hasn’t); he probably hadn’t even had time to consider it very much at all (engrossed in important stuff, you know, like healing the sick, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, or urging persecuted Christians to contend for the Faith). His response is thoughtful, intelligent and discerning. Not least because he refuses pointblank to be part of any ‘Trojan horse’ plot to thwart Brexit (which will disappoint the five Remainer signatories to the letter); and (here’s the blinder [for those who have ears]) “the process must have time to be properly organised”.
There are 64 days to Brexit (and 20 or so days of Parliament sitting). Could someone please explain how that is sufficient time to select Assembly Members – who must not only be balanced to reflect the 52:48 result of the Referendum, but also balanced by sex, nationality (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and region (north-south); if not also by faith (don’t forget atheist-humanist-secularists will want to ‘police’ a person of faith holding such an important position), and disability, and sexuality, and age (in the hope that the voice of 16-year-olds will be heard above the senile Brexiteers who are all about to die)? Could someone please explain how Members’ availability will be guaranteed so they may attend all sessions? Won’t some of them have 9-5 jobs? Will they be compensated for lost earnings? Or will membership be restricted to those who can afford it, thereby excluding an entire socioeconomic stratum of society which voted Leave, and with which the Church of England is very much concerned?
Could someone then please explain how this is sufficient time to select the ‘experts’ (paid?) who will be called on to offer evidence to the Assembly? Could someone then please explain how this is sufficient time to distil findings and issue a report? Could someone then please explain how this is sufficient time for Parliament to deliberate on these findings?
Could someone then please explain what all this will cost the taxpayer?
Could someone then please explain how the Archbishop’s participation in this unutterable (and manifest) lost cause appears to the world (especially the disenfranchised Brexiteer world), and how it might further damage the essential mission of the Church of England, which is not to sustain a protectionist trade bloc or advance European political integration, but to preach salvation, heal the sick and save souls?