When the majority of UK voters determined to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016, it was met with much relief and rejoicing by many millions of people:
The majority apprehends the future of British civilisation in terms of its own manners and morals; in its native religious and political institutions. The whole entrenched elite Establishment – Monarchy, Parliament, Government and Church – has been confronted by an epoch-making movement of ordinary people, including humble, devout and sincere Christians who have been tarnished with the whiff of sin and smeared with racism, all because they believe in democracy, national self-determination, and the ability to sack those who make their laws.
It was inconceivable then that we might still be members of the EU three years later: getting Brexit ‘done’ has sometimes felt like a labour of Sisyphean futility. But here we are, at the moment of the Brexit event, finally implementing the determination of the 2016 EU Referendum, and asserting that the sovereignty of the United Kingdom shall no more be ‘pooled’, and that liberal democracy matters more than ‘ever-closer union’. What Ted Heath signed away in one fell swoop, Boris Johnson has restored, or is restoring – organically and incrementally.
In his address to the General Synod following the Referendum, Justin Welby set forth a vision for a post-Brexit future:
Whether one was a supporter of Brexit or of remain, there is now a wide and liberal choice of future for this country… This is a moment to reimagine Britain, a moment of potential opportunity, certainly combined with immensely hard work and heavy lifting. It is a moment of challenge, but challenge that as a nation can be overcome with the right practices, values, culture and spirit. This could be a time of liberation, of seizing and defining the future, or it could be one in which the present problems seize our national future and define us.
And in this liberation grace could flow, as grace tends to when the law is supplanted by freedom and vocation. The outworking and outpouring of grace is not confined (or hindered) by apparent fissures in the established political order. When the course of history changes, it is for man to grapple with the ensuing morality and re-forge a temporal vision to make the change good, not to attack the ends with appeals to a teleological order reflective more of personal progressive politics than a reasonable acceptance of an alternative generic relationship of nation to nation(s).
Justin Welby’s optimism conveyed a hope of grace for an optimal human endeavour to make Brexit work, rather than a curmudgeonly acceptance of ‘the will of the people’ toward a direction of history which was not their will at all (and certainly not that of any of our ‘neighbours’). There was the EEC, and then the EC, and then the EU, and then there was Brexit. If some of the people want to do something new – however misguided they may be and however misled they might have been – may not God do something new in the transformation of the world? If the preferred end of European union is no longer destined; if the EU is no longer ‘the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire’, might there not be something ‘better’ to discover beneath what we may have known and understood in part? Might there not be a ‘higher grace’ of greater possibilities to discern and realise?
If the Church of England continues to convey to England (and, indeed, if the other Anglican churches of the United Kingdom continue to convey to their respective constituent nations) that the only path to peace and reconciliation in Europe is by nations treading the path of ‘ever-closer’ political union, then the distance between the churches and peoples will grow ever-further as clergy ignore the depths of wisdom and experience to be found in those lives and dedicated lifetimes of a different vision and alternative sense of national identity. If those who voted Leave are made to feel that they ‘sinned’ in their assertion of ‘neo-nationalism’ or ‘populism’ and so are under condemnation, what may be their apprehension of the Holy Spirit as a source of power enabling them to walk in obedience?
Instead of viewing Brexit as another painful rupture in Christendom; instead of iterating tensions and reiterating the disputes of sovereignty and democracy; instead of propagating fears of disassociation and disorder, may not Brexit be considered a source of human welfare consonant with Christian spirituality? May it not be as wide as the Commonwealth of Nations, and as liberal as the Worldwide Anglican Communion? Could it not be held together without an anti-democratic oligarchical commission or an infallible pope? In ‘taking back control’ of our national life, could there be virtue in a return to greater responsibility, accountability and the ‘messiness’ of doing democracy? In his Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor affirms the fons et origo of the impulse:
With the Reformation, we find a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life. The crucial issue was how it was led, whether worshipfully and in the fear of God or not. But the life of the God-fearing was lived out in marriage and their calling. The previous ‘higher’ forms of life were dethroned, as it were. And along with this went frequently an attack, covert or overt, which had made these forms their province.
As the ‘higher’ form of UK governance is dethroned, there is the possibility of responsible individualism and responsible nationalism. Just as the individual has no need of a higher priestly ‘counsel of perfection’ in Rome, so the sovereign nation has no need of a supranational ‘council of perfection’ in Brussels. In the event of ‘taking back control’ and the process of restoring self-governance lies not only an opportunity for ‘peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’, but also a patriotism of freedom and self-rule.
Grace will not flow like a river until the reign of God succeeds that of world empires, but as one era ends and another begins, there is good to be found in a post-EU journey of national self-discovery, or self-rediscovery. For the UK is not ‘leaving Europe’, as is popularly expressed, but we are leaving the European Union, which is a quite different entity; the former consisting of 47 nations, and the latter now of 27. The UK may no longer have a representative in the European Council, but we remain a full participating member of the 47-strong Council of Europe, and so an integral part of the Europe of history, culture and human rights, which was forged by Christianity and stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals. This is the Europe of fraternity, harmony and cooperation, rather than that of oligarchy, harmonisation and coercion. Isn’t the Europe of organic creativity inclined to be a ‘higher’ channel of grace than the Europe of technocratic bureaucracy?
The Brexit event is ultimately an assertion of national subsidiarity, effected because centralising powers pre-ordained to ‘ever-closer union’ ultimately reduce member states to regions of administered dependence. A majority came to believe there was much more that could and should be done at the national level rather than at the supranational level. But an assertion of subsidiarity does not remove us from the European community of nations: it offers a vision (and some may say revives the vocation) for the ‘wide and liberal’ global future exhorted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Reformation that forged the Church of England and shaped Anglicanism ultimately yielded and sustains the Worldwide Anglican Communion: perceived insularity may indeed be ‘wide and liberal’ with reconciling grace and ‘good disagreement’. The churches of England, Scotland, Wales and (Northern) Ireland all have a contribution to make to that vision or vocation, especially in fostering reconciliation and the inculcation of hope.
It would also be fruitful if the Church, in its reconciling and mediating vocation, were able to help people know and understand that the Europe of shared values – of history, culture, fraternal cooperation, national diversity and human rights – resides under the aegis of the Council of Europe; a commonwealth of equals cohabiting ‘in tension’ (and sometimes great tension), expressing and reifying national identities which are severally against, of, above, and with ‘Europeanism’ in paradox. Isn’t this the wide and liberal global vision and optimal transformer of European culture to a communion of grace?