The Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser is one of the very few Church of England clergy who has publicly declared that he wants the UK to leave the EU. It is, for him, a passionate cause of socialist democracy in the righteous pursuit of social justice: that in order for politicians to serve the people, they must be accountable to the people. As Tony Benn once interrogated: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?” Succinct responses from the EU Commission might be: “Lots”; “The Treaties”; “Well, that’s a very good question”; “Well, it’s a bit complex”; “If by ‘we’ you mean you, you can’t”.
The conviction is that where laws may be made local to the people, no remote or centralised authority should seek legislate in those areas. While national governments guard the liberties of the people with justice and truth, there needs no elite imposition of a supranational corpus of law which is alien to those traditions. Where workers enjoy hard-won rights under labour and employment law, no bureaucratic elite has the right to barter those rights away in the name of some covert transatlantic trade and investment partnership.
treads humbly stamps his boots firmly in the footsteps of Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Peter (Lord) Shore. He stands foursquare with the late Bob Crow, shoulder-to-shoulder with Frank Field, and channels the prophetic spirit of former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who warned of the implications of EEC accession back in 1962:
We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: “Let it end.” But, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.
For the Eurosceptic political left (including Jeremy Corbyn – until he became Labour leader), opposition to the EEC/EC/EU does not represent the denial of economic necessity or ignorance of diplomatic pragmatism: it is an aversion to the deceptive Tory assurance that EU membership represents no “erosion of essential national sovereignty”, as Ted Heath put it in 1971 (and Europhiles still spout). Pooling national sovereignty enhances it, they aver, as though to pool is not to dilute, and to expand is not to enervate. Tony Benn articulated the riposte in 1974: “Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation and the end of our democratically elected Parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom.” His demons then might have been capitalism, imperialism and European fascism, but it is to Giles Fraser’s credit that he is now prepared to defend those fundamental democratic principles at the risk of being accused of crass populism, nationalism, and of possessing those caricatured Powellite instincts of racist jingoism and a narrow political zealotry.
And he’s fielding the insults, smears, backbiting and invective as purely in heart as he stoops to pick up the bloody needles, druggie syringes and human excrement from his churchyard after another long-suffered Saturday night of Hackney community havoc and disorder. Actually, that’s a lie: he’s really quite angry about both, and justifiably so.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Giles Fraser favours immigration and wants lots of it, and then lots more. He wants economic migrants, asylum seekers, and the oppressed and persecuted of the world to be welcomed to the UK’s shores not in piddly trickles of a few thousand, but in waves of the tens and hundreds of thousands. That’s an important point for this blog post, and you will understand why in due course. But for those Conservative or Ukip Brexiters for whom this policy shunts Giles Fraser swiftly beyond the pale, consider that he wants no centrally-imposed free movement or proportionate refugee/GDP quota system devised by Brussels: he wants UK politicians to administer the policy in order that the people are then free to sack or support the government which enacted it. This is not an immutable supranational “free movement of persons” restricted to those confined by the borders of the European Union, but a democratic compassion and merciful hospitality to the poor and destitute of the world. Giles Fraser wants uncontrolled immigration, but he wants the absence of control to be controlled by our elected politicians. Agree or disagree with him as you wish, but he upholds the fundamental sovereignty of the people and espouses the democratic imperative.
But to the matter at hand.
On 5th May, Giles Fraser wrote one of his ‘Loose Canon’ pieces for the Guardian: Brexit recycles the defiant spirit of the Reformation. It was politically reasoned, historically valid and theologically grounded. The former Dean of Durham, the Very Rev’d Michael Sadgrove, chairman of ‘Christians for Europe’, thought otherwise: “comparing the Brexit spirit to the spirit of the Reformation is wrong politically, historically, and theologically”, he co-wrote with a QC in a terse riposte, which is now reverberating. That is to say, Giles Fraser’s reasoning is politically inept, historically ignorant and theologically illiterate. Michael Sadgrove didn’t use those terms because that isn’t his style, but it is certainly his patent meaning. He explains:
Politically, his description of EU law as law imposed by a “foreign power” is ill-informed. The UK plays a full part in making EU law, both as a member of the council of ministers (with a veto in areas such as tax) and through its MEPs in the EU parliament. The overwhelming proportion of EU law is supported by the UK. This is a union of which the UK is an important member, not a foreign power.
Except that this is wrong. Or ill-informed. Or politically inept. Or a misrepresentation of what Giles Fraser actually wrote. We may quibble over what may be meant by the term “foreign”, but in terms of law it may be understood as that which is alien to national tradition or custom, and that, in England (and subsequently incorporated into Scotland), includes the Common Law, which is certainly being supplanted by Corpus Juris. It has not been “imposed” in the sense of foisted without consent: our elected politicians have signed away historic liberties (such as the presumption of innocence, Habeas Corpus and trial by jury) in the pursuit of the European Arrest Warrant, but the people have never been consulted about this, and so may indeed view it as a foreign imposition of the Napoleonic Code over the historic Common Law.
It is important to note that EU law is not merely binding upon member states; it is superior to national law. All provisions, regulations, directives and decisions made at an EU level must be incorporated in UK domestic law, and Parliament is impotent to challenge any of these by virtue of its subordination to the precepts of the Treaty of Rome (and subsequent amending treaties). Unlike NATO and other international treaty organisations, the EU creates a developed corpus of law of its own which is interpreted by the European Court of Justice, which is superior to national courts and bound to interpret Community law in accordance with the Treaty of Rome (and successors). Now, you may argue that none of this happens without the participation and approval of the Council of Ministers (representing the governments of each member state), but when unanimity is increasingly giving way to a weighted majority vote (QMV), it is indeed the case that this EU legislative body, which meets in camera and may not be scrutinised, may impose laws upon the UK. As Lord Denning remarked: “..when we come to matters with a European element, the Treaty is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up rivers. It cannot be held back.” This is the Acquis, which must be obeyed. But perhaps Michael Sadgrove thinks that this Lord Justice and Master of the Rolls is wrong, too. Or ill-advised. Or politically inept.
That aside, what Giles Fraser actually said was that “the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity.” The word “feels” is important here, and so is “canon law”, and so is “echo”. There is a pervasive demotic feeling of the abolition of Christian heritage, the abrogation of the national legal character and the disestablishment of institutional diversity in favour of aggressive secularity, an alien judicial system and political uniformity. If Giles Fraser hears an “echo” of another empire, it is not auditory hallucination. As Peter (Lord) Shore observed in his book Separate Ways:
..no one who has been engaged seriously in the business of examining draft EC laws and treaties can have any doubt about their quite extraordinary – and deliberate – complexity. Every new article or treaty clause is, with reference to articles in earlier treaties – generally to be located in a separate treaty volume. Indeed part of the whole mystique of Community Law is its textual incomprehensibility, its physical dispersal, its ambivalence and its dependence upon ultimate clarification by the European Court of Justice: and the Brussels Commission and their long-serving, often expert officials are, in interpreting and manipulating all this, like a priestly caste – similar to what it must have been in pre-Reformation days, when the Bible was in Latin, not English; the Pope, his cardinals and bishops decided the content of canon law and the message came down to the laymen, only when the Latin text was translated into the vernacular by the dutiful parish priest.
Clearly, the the themes of Reformation still resonate in the national political psyche. But perhaps Lord Shore was simply “ill-informed” as well.
Michael Sadgrove then turns to Giles Fraser’s woeful grasp of church history:
Historically, he is wrong to cite Luther as a supporter of separate national churches. Luther wanted to transform the whole church. The creation of separate national churches under the control of the nation state was, for him, an expediency to which he was driven by the politics of the day. And it has led in many cases to what I am sure Giles would accept is an unhealthily close relationship between national churches and the nation state.
The relationship between the Church of England and the English State may indeed occasionally be “unhealthily close”, but that is not a matter of dispute: it is a constitutional matter of erastian compromise, conceived historically for the common good, and to which both men have pledged their allegiance as ordained Anglican ministers. But Luther’s motives and objectives for reform were not as simple as Michael Sadgrove posits. In seeking to transform the whole Catholic church, he understood perfectly that he must begin with the German church, and in starting with the German church, it made sense to begin at home in Wittenberg.
In 16th-century Christendom, God-given authority was multi-layered: Luther understood that it resided in the princes of Empire as well as the bishops of the Church. He expressed unequivocally in The Babylonian Captivity that local communities ought to be free to choose their own ministers, from which may be derived the principle of national ecclesial autonomy, or affirmation of the doctrine of subsidiarity. He was equally insistent that God’s chosen representatives could not be random, self-declared prophets with the cultic power to make saints, and so, in the reasoned pursuit of orderly ecclesial control, he enlisted the support of the magistrates and dukes of the Commonwealth.
For Luther, it was the Prince who had the power to protect the Church, and one scripture in particular was central to his understanding: ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God‘ (Rom 13:1). These worldly powers possess territorial jurisdiction and rule diversely and variously: England is not Italy; London is not Rome. Kings and princes discern the evangelical cause differently, and Luther fathomed the tension between the spiritual and temporal realms: cuius regio, eius religio (‘Whose realm; his religion’).
To dismiss Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ apprehension of mission as “an expediency” is to misunderstand the human reality which perhaps Erasmus and Melanchthon better understood: namely that the role of the prince includes a natural responsibility as God’s anointed to have a ‘care of religion’ (cura religionis). The English national alliance of temporal kings with spiritual lords is a historic fusion of ecclesial and civil power for the peace and security of the realm. If, as the Bill of Rights 1689 observes, “it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a popish prince”, it may be laterally adduced that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by politicians in Brussels and judges in Luxembourg.
Finally, Michael Sadgrove turns on Giles Fraser’s theology:
Theologically, there is no basis at all for the idea of separate national churches. Indeed, Paul’s letters are full of references not just to the unimportance of nationality but to the need to work together, with each playing their part and learning and growing together, with an express condemnation of schism.
This is muddled thinking. St Paul may speak of the believer’s citizenship being in heaven (1Cor 5:9f; Rom 13:1-7), but it is somewhat eisegetical to assert that St Paul thought nationality to be “unimportant”. Indeed, his Roman citizenship greatly enhanced his ministry by granting certain rights and liberties (Acts 16:37-39, 22:25-29). By virtue of his nationality, he was able to demand a trial before Caesar rather than Festus (25:7-12). He would have had certified proof of his citizenship which permitted him travel throughout the Empire provided that he met his obligations to Caesar, particularly in regard to taxation.
Nationality may be “unimportant” in the soteriological context (Gal 3:28), but it is manifestly of the utmost importance in matters of temporal liberty and law, and this is what Giles Fraser was talking about. For someone who accepts the spiritual value and freedom to “theologise differently“, it is curious that Michael Sadgrove dismisses these observations so peremptorily: there’s isn’t much tolerant latitudinalism in “wrong”, is there? But he does concede:
Where Giles has a point is that Protestantism is connected to ideas of democracy. It is also true that the EU is not a perfect democracy. But neither, in many respects, is the UK. Flouncing out of the EU has, in the end, nothing to do with democracy. What it is about is a nationalism of a particularly narrow sort, with which Giles should have nothing to do.
Being a constitutional monarchy with an established church, the UK is, of course “not a perfect democracy”. But the EU is not any kind of democracy at all: it is not merely undemocratic; it is anti-democratic, as we have seen time and again with the repudiation of national referendums which do not accord with the foundational Treaty precept of “ever closer union”. If Michael Sadgrove thinks that by sending MEPs to the European Parliament the EU is made a democracy, he is wrong. If he believes that the UK can nudge the whole behemoth toward becoming more democratic, he is ill-informed.
And if he believes that the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser has become a proponent of “nationalism of a particularly narrow sort”, he might reflect on Dr Fraser’s manifest passion for the democratic control of pan-national mass immigration, which doesn’t sound very nationalistically narrow at all. He might also peruse a few photographs of Dr Fraser’s recent wedding (to an Israeli Jewess), which doesn’t look very nationalistically narrow either. And then he might visit Dr Fraser’s church in Stoke Newington at Pentecost, when the place will look, sound, smell and feel very much like Notting Hill Carnival.
The slur of “narrow nationalism” against Giles Fraser is evidently not “ultra vires”, unlike the allegation of “theologically illiterate” against the Dean was considered to be. It may be observed that ownership of the expressive narrative is routinely assumed by the liberal elite, with their orthodox utterances of political ideology and religious morality. But the judgmental sneer of “nationalism” is wrong, ill-informed and unworthy of the very reverend retired dean. Brexit moves the UK beyond the narrowness of Euro-nationalism: it will open up the UK’s borders to the Commonwealth and to the world. Brexit is actually less narrowly nationalistic than “free movement of persons” within the EU. And we are not “flouncing out of the EU”, which is a rather pompous proclamation. We posit a politically reasoned, historically intelligent and theologically discerning cause for an orderly secession from the secular EU empire. That is not the sort of “schism” which Scripture “expressly condemns”.