Don’t you just love the Church of England’s concept of ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the EU Referendum? A whole sea of bishops has endorsed the Remain campaign (that list has since extended, and is still doing so, and not a single one has demurred over the Cameron-Osborne strategy of terrorising the electorate with ‘Project Fear’). The Archbishop of York declared for Remain a few days ago, and now the Archbishop of Canterbury has done the same (with an emotive video appeal) following his recent smearing of a prominent BeLeaver with the allegation of “legitimising racism”. This
coordinated completely coincidental archiepiscopal outpouring of Europhilia comes just a fortnight before the crunch vote which will determine whether we remain party to European political integration, or revert simply to being a member of a looser trade bloc, which is what we were told we were joining in 1973, and so affirmed in 1975. The Prime Minister must be delighted that the Established Church is doing the Establishment’s bidding.
Justin Welby is keen to stress that the Church of England does not have an official line on the EU Referendum. It’s just that it appears so. Imagine if the Government had declared itself to be neutral on the matter, and one by one the Cabinet had toured the TV studios to endorse ‘Stronger In’ while slagging off leading BeLeavers. Do you not think people might detect a hint of predisposition, if not a prejudiced and pre-ordained agenda? It is surely a façade of institutional neutrality which permits the full weight of its collective leadership not merely to express a “personal view”, but to dedicate its entire Church House and Bishopthorpe/Lambeth Palace communications machinery (and so staff and financial resources) to ensure the effective dissemination of that message in the national and social media. This amounts to a ‘non-party campaign‘ under Electoral Commission rules. And to endorse ‘Remain’ with appeals to Christian moral responsibility, as John Sentamu does, is verging on the abuse of religious office and the exertion of undue spiritual influence, which, for some, is a grave matter indeed.
This is not an argument for bishops and archbishops to butt out of the secular political sphere (if such a thing exists): it is a plea for spiritual integrity and reflexive honesty in institutional positionality. One could not credibly assert that the institution of Monarchy is politically neutral on the matter of EU membership if the Queen slags off Boris/Gove/Farage while the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge are singing the enlightened praises ‘Remain’. The institution of Monarchy is not castles, palaces and Crown Jewels: it is princes and kings – living people – in communion with history and ancestry. And so it is with the Church of England: the church is its people. When bishops and archbishops unite to express a unanimous view, it is the church that speaks. Their professed Referendum ‘neutrality’ is a convenient agnostic cloak for a pathological Europhile disposition: everyone knows it’s a ruse to sustain the peace between the pro-EU bishops and the majority Brexit-leaning laity. There is no convenient via media in this referendum: either we remain or leave. It is a very un-Anglican assignation.
If the Church of England had really sought neutrality, its leaders would have done as the Queen and senior members of the Royal Family do: keep mum; not express any public view at all. Discretion is the soul of disinterest: declaration is the meat of partisanship.
The two archbishops may be united for Remain, but they take very different approaches to their mission. Dr Sentamu’s apologetic is replete with value judgments, platitudes, constitutional errors and misunderstandings of international law. The headline and associated picture are a wham of a declaration: ‘Our commitments to our European partners cannot be lightly cast aside – that’s why I’ll be voting to Remain‘, he broadcasts to the world, with accompanying beflagged sandcastle over which a Lillipution Union Jack is subsumed to a humongous EU circle of stars. Yes, that’s all sub-editorial baggage, but inferred fairly from the content, and the Archbishop hasn’t tweeted any censure or discontent. Dr Welby, on the other hand, prefaces his moderate, humble and reasoned appeal with acres of ground dedicated to war and the pity of war. His theme is peace and reconciliation, and his heart overflows with love, not judgment. You can even sense a hug for Boris: the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words are fragrant with grace, and the accompanying image is one of sombre reflection of the imperative of peace, peace, peace. It is profoundly sensitive, and almost sensible.
But the Archbishop of York is like a trumpet in a wayside chapel: “I haven’t yet heard a cogent argument for why we should be out,” he snapped at the Times a few weeks ago. Perhaps he needs an aid, unless he truly believes that all those intelligent, educated and thoughtful BeLeavers are unable to string together a sound and valid case. The Archbishop of Canterbury is more generous: “I have huge respect for politicians on both sides as they seek to put their case, a case in which they genuinely believe, and which they know matters hugely,” he writes. Both essays merit a thorough theo-political fisking, but life’s too short and death can be better spent.
Dr Sentamu makes many sound observations: both Leave and Remain campaigns have been shallow and crude. Promises are important, but he appears to prefer modern history to the long centuries of developed democracy and millennia of cultural cultivation. His initial appeal is to Burkean notions of conservatism: society does not merely consist of the living, but also of those who preceded us and those who will succeed. Individuals live in communion with the living and the dead, and to be mindful of this is conducive to well-being, good stewardship and mutual flourishing. And to deny history is indeed to deny national identity. Institutions are not immutable: they must adapt organically to the concerns and priorities of each generation, but preserve the essence of their meaning, foundation and constitution. Europe is indeed bigger than European institutions: on this we can all agree.
But it is curious, having observed the need for renewal and change in order to effect necessary reform, that Dr Sentamu believes treaties to bind a nation “in perpetuity”. Setting aside the sovereign and constitutional matter of a parliament not being able to bind its successors “in perpetuity”, treaties are man-made contracts: they can be cancelled, amended and, more importantly, exchanged for better contracts. There is, of course, no virtue in contracts ‘broken’, and that is what Dr Sentamu believes a Leave vote would amount to. It would, for him, constitute a broken promise, a breach of trust, which would cause all the nations of the earth never again to wish to do business with us, for our word would no longer be our bond. This is quite odd. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty provides for this very eventuality: the option to leave the European Union is set out cogently in clauses of the Constitutional Treaty. The desire to leave is an acknowledged possibility with constitutional validity. The binding “in perpetuity” is a figment of Dr Sentamu’s theo-political imagination.
“My conscience tells me that I must vote to Remain in the European Union,” he writes, which is fine, but why impugn everyone else’s sense of political morality to assert a personal conscience perspective? The international order is in a state of constant flux, and needs to be if it is to be responsive to the revolutions and aspirations of the people. Is the Archbishop of York really saying that all treaties which bind disparate clans may never be decided afresh, for to do so would constitute a failure to accept responsibilities and fulfil inherited obligations? So Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia should have remained bound together, no matter what bloody civil wars or ethno-religious campaigns of terror were waged in pursuit of independence? Scotland may not secede from the United Kingdom, for the Scots have an inherited obligation to honour the Acts of Union? May not a treaty-bound empire fracture and fragment as its tribes yearn for liberty and identity?
Dr Sentamu bemoans Brexiters’ inability to keep promises, as though the Treaty of Rome were an oath sworn on pain of divine wrath. And then we get:
We should continue to work and walk together. Reconciliation and honourable political and economic accommodation are always possible. That goes some way to explain why British membership of the UN, Nato, the Commonwealth, and now the EU have survived this long. Isn’t the best way of winning over those we disagree with to make them our friends? Moral responsibilities must never give way to pragmatism.
To vote Remain is a moral responsibility? Are Christians who wish to leave the EU somehow deficient in their morality? Are they rashly abdicating their responsibility? Is it therefore morally irresponsible to vote Leave? Does that not make voting Leave a sin? If voting to remain in the EU is our moral responsibility, would it not be God’s will that we do so, and so the Christian thing to do? Would not Jesus exhort his disciples always to be morally responsible? Is the Archbishop of York seriously suggesting that Jesus would vote Remain on 23rd June because it is the morally responsible and most virtuously Christian thing to do? At least the Archbishop of Canterbury has the humility to admit: “In no sense do I have some divine hotline to the right answer.” Dr Sentamu’s hotline seems to go straight to the right hand of God.
“But nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory,” he then opines, quoting Henry Chadwick. “The same is true of nations in general and of Great Britain in particular,” he adds. Surely the nation that lost its memory is the one which believes that 40 years of European political integration nullifies centuries of developed democracy, liberty and rights. Surely the nation that lost its memory is the one which forgets why millions of our youngest, finest and bravest died in two world wars.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is far more cultivated. He wraps his political appeal in so much theology and compassion that one might be persuaded he is right:
At the heart of Britain’s Christian heritage are certain glorious principles. They are what make the best of our nation, whether we are Christians, of another faith or of no faith. They come from Jesus’s teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.
Among those principles is a vision of peace and reconciliation, of being builders of bridges, not barriers…
And off we go to the Somme, cemeteries and his father-in-law’s sadness at the waste and loss. These paragraphs are replete with mental scars and noble feelings. There are exhortations to love our neighbour and show mercy and hospitality to the poor, the alien and the stranger. But then comes a disquieting manipulation. Perhaps it is inadvertent; a little careless or uncharacteristically irreflective. Speaking of Our Glorious Dead, he writes: “How those who fought would vote in the referendum is unknowable, and likely to be as varied as how people today will vote. No one can conscript them to one side or the other.” And yet he does precisely that, just as the Prime Minister has previously done, and just as Jean-Claude Juncker did with his crass advice that “Eurosceptics should visit war graves“. If you preach that the EU is righteously and sacrificially looking forward, and then say: “Those who fought in two world wars were not looking back but forward. Those who built the EU after the two wars, in which millions of Europeans had died, looked forward”, you are conscripting the sacrifice of our war dead to your side. That is an undue and imperceptive influence.
No Christian who wants to leave the European Union is not also concerned, as the Archbishop of Canterbury manifestly is, with “sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless”. We simply believe that freedom and democracy are nullified and negated by our continuing membership of the EU, and that Europe needs a better settlement of hope and virtue. To vote Leave is not to be self-absorbed or to care “only about ourselves”. We are indeed most human when we exist for others, but our others include the 20+ European nations who are not in the EU, as well as the starving and destitute of Africa, who are unable to sell their beans and grain into Fortress EU without incurring 7-30% tariffs, thereby making the fruit of their labours uncompetitive with the produce of the heavily-subsidised Common Agricultural Policy. Where is the justice in that? How is that an expression of economic love for the African?
“This referendum seems to me to be so important because it is about our vision of what kind of country we are, for ourselves and for the world,” Dr Welby says. Does he not want a world in which the Greeks can get what they vote for? Does he not want a world in which mass migration and 50% youth unemployment matter more than the maximum wattage of kettles and vacuum cleaners? Does he not want a world in which Christians are free to wear crosses in the workplace? Does he not want a world of good governance, accountability and transparency? He says the EU “needs renewed vision; major reforms”, apparently oblivious to the fact that the Prime Minister was impotent to secure the most modest of welfare reform, despite having promised to do so in his election manifesto. He doesn’t disclose what these “major reforms” must be; nor does he say how they might ever be achieved.
Perhaps, in his next YouTube video, the Archbishop of Canterbury might explain his “renewed vision” for the EU/Europe. And, in the meantime, both archbishops might consent to debate the issues of the EU Referendum with Christians for Britain, who have issued the invitation.