“My right honourable friend the Prime Minister talks about her sacred duty over Brexit,” declared former Attorney General Dominic Grieve in the Valentine’s Day debate on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. “I do not think Brexit is a sacred duty at all; I think it is a pretty profane matter,” he moralised, “and if it is going to plunge us into a national crisis, we have a sacred duty to prevent it.” And so the Prime Minister’s sacred duty to deliver on the result of the EU Referendum confronts Dominic Grieve’s sacred duty to thwart it, and the sacralisation of leaving or remaining moves the debate into the transcendent, unchallengeable and intangible realm of which principality or power possesses the divinest right.
Manichæism doesn’t help democratic politics in moments of crisis: if one side is bathed in goodness and light, and the other bound by evil and darkness, there isn’t going to be much of a consensus on a way forward: ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?‘
And what collaborative give-and-take or social harmony can there be between Brexit and remaining in the European Union?
Theresa May is pursuing a moral mission to deliver on the will of the British people, which in 2016 was to leave the EU. Dominic Grieve (inter alia) believes that the will of the people has changed and they must be permitted to express their desire in a second referendum to remain in the EU. Both have made appeals to the national interest and the common good, and now, with an aura of sanctity, claim the prerogative to determine where loyalty, devotion and sacred duty must lie.
Theresa May and Dominic Grieve are Anglican Christians seeking to ground their political convictions in divine commands: for May, to ignore the referendum result is ethically wrong because it transgresses a sacred duty to serve democracy; for Grieve, to implement the referendum is result is ethically wrong because it will inflict suffering on the people. Since God is love, nothing that is ethically wrong is in accordance with His will: He does not and will not command the practice of cruelty for its own sake. What both May and Grieve fail to grasp is the nature of wrongness: it is not simply an expression of disagreement, but a property of actions, intentions and attitudes.
The Prime Minister seeks to serve the will of the people, even when it is against her personal political conviction and beliefs. She believed we should remain in the EU, but the people determined otherwise. She wasn’t wrong, but believes the people expressed a greater collective wisdom and ethical rightness, and it is her sacred duty to listen and obey. The Member for Beaconsfield also believed we should remain in the EU. The people might have determined otherwise, but he was right then and is right now: the people, he believes, are wrong and have been shown to be wrong. His sacred duty is to correct their error, and, indeed, that of the Prime Minister: “I am really alarmed that she does not appear to understand that,” he said, with his superior lawyerly teleological enlightenment. For May, Brexit is the will of the people which, in a democracy, God allows whether the people are right or not. For Grieve, Brexit is contrary to the will of God, and his vocation is to speak prophetically and warn of impending disaster. It is God’s revealed will: Brexit is not what He wants or plans to have happen.
There is no compromise between these competing sacred duties: one must give way to the other.
One wonders what God is really saying, and where the Christian’s sacred duty really lies.
Fresh from his Ignatian retreat at St Beuno’s in north Wales, the Rev’d Jonathan Aitken writes in the Times: ‘Political earth is moving, but we should pray on’:
…Meditating on the Ignatian exercises takes a retreatant to profound levels of humble communion with God. He increases as our egos decrease. Yet with the world in turmoil, might such a private journey of the soul be self-indulgent?
I asked my retreat director, Father Jed, whether Ignatius could have anything to teach us about Brexit.
“Definitely yes”, was his unexpected reply. “The exercises lead to discernment through periods of desolation and consolation. Decisions taken in desolation will be affected by negative forces such as fear, resentment, pressure or coercion. By contrast, the experiences of consolation can produce decisions taken in the spirit of hope, generosity, peace and trust.”
In a democracy, the people are free to choose who will have political authority over them to make the laws by which they are governed. They may take their decision out of fear and resentment, or out of hope and trust. Sometimes they will get this wrong, but they can only learn that wrongness if they suffer the consequences of their decision. Since there is no authority except from God (Rom 13:1), the democratic authority of the Prime Minister is an operation of God: she mediates His authority. Sometimes she will get things wrong, but she can only learn that wrongness if she suffers the consequences of her decisions. Brexit must be delivered because it was the majority determination of the people. If they got it wrong, they can only learn that wrongness if they have to live with the consequences of their decision. Democracy is messy, but the alternative is terrifying.
And the only sacred duty is to serve Christ.