This Friday there is to be a colloquium at Lambeth Palace entitled: ‘After Brexit: European Unity and the Unity of the European Churches’. In the current political morass of ‘Hard’ Brexit vs BRINO betrayal, it is heartening indeed to read that the event of Brexit at Lambeth Palace is an assumed anterior fact, but disappointing to note that the list of attendees is quite massively skewed toward Remain, including some prominent proponents of what is now called a ‘People’s Vote’ (ie a second referendum to nullify the result of the first [ie to ensure that the fact of Brexit becomes a myth]).
A colloquium (L. colloqui: ‘to converse’; from col- ‘together’ + loqui ‘to talk’) is a laudable means of eliciting corporate wisdom and insight, and in the ecclesial context there is always space for conversations about spiritual and temporal unity. Jesus, after all, prayed that believers might be one (Jn 17:21), and he also blessed the peacemakers (Mt 5:9): reconciliation of man to man and of man to God was the essence of his earthly mission, and remains the ongoing mission of those who would follow him. Talking together is good: where would the Church be without those early ecumenical colloquia by which and through which the Holy Spirit inspired the compilation of scriptures (which are still a matter of debate) and the formulation of foundational creeds (which are still a matter of debate)? Ongoing conversation about the inspired conversations between man and man and between man and God are manifestly beneficial to relationship – between man and man and between man and God.
But it’s a strange sort of exploration of relationship and reconciliation which convenes a colloquium on ‘European unity and the unity of European churches’ consisting of 62 attendees, of which only two (or possibly three) believe Brexit to be a good, moral and virtuous thing. Since the overwhelming majority of those attending are clergy, perhaps this preference ought not to come as a surprise. But non-clergy include LSE and Cambridge academics; Pro-EU members of the House of Lords; former Blair advisors and EU operatives, and one MP.
Just one MP.
And that MP is David Lammy.
That’s the vociferous anti-Brexit, pro-‘People’s Vote’ David Lammy, who believes Brexit to be an ‘extremist’ policy and routinely brands Brexiteers as ‘far right’ (ie fascist).
Lambeth Palace could have invited Kate Hoey or Frank Field to provide some balance to Lammy’s extremist views. Or, since the subject is the unity of the European Churches, they might also have invited prominent Roman Catholics Edward Leigh or Jacob Rees-Mogg (not least because Fr Heikki Huttunen, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, is on the list of invitees: Church unity is indeed an ecumenical matter). There are quite a few sage Christian souls who belong to the Cornerstone Group who could have been invited, but Lambeth Palace will not be hosting any Conservative MPs and no Labour Brexiteers (not even the most prominent Anglican Socialist in the House of Commons, the eminent, wise and highly respected Frank Field).
No, it’s just David Lammy who gets to pose his questions and interrogate the speakers – or, of course, to deliver his own speech (since invitations are open). And those scheduled speeches include an awful lot of Brexit doom and gloom:
Ben Ryan (Theos): How can UK churches address the divisions expressed and potentially deepened by Brexit, including the north/south; rural/urban; old/young; anywhere/somewhere and economic divides?
Professor Dr Arnulf von Scheliha (University of Münster): How are the social divisions associated with Brexit replicated in other European countries, and how are churches responding to them?
And if all that socio-economic schismatic jaundice doesn’t shunt you towards the hope of Purgatory, there’s:
The Reverend Dr Gary Wilton (Vicar of Eccleshall): How might European churches today evaluate the founding ideals of the EU (including those of peace and reconciliation), and its potential to foster and express a set of common European values in the contemporary context?
Professor Piers Ludlow (London School of Economics and Political Science): To what extent does the identity and therefore the unity of Europe continue to depend on a common Christian heritage?
The Very Reverend Dr Sarah Rowland-Jones (Dean of St Davids Cathedral): What are the major current risks to the unity of European churches, as this has developed over the last fifty years?
You only need to google some of these names (see here and here) to discover their pathological antipathy toward Brexit. This colloquium will not be an infusion of liberating optimism or political hope: there is no paper, for example, extolling the virtues of continental peace through the defence of national sovereignty; or why national churches are a vehicle of grace for thinking ecumenically about human freedom and justice. There is no paper on the ecstasy of the restoration of democratic accountability, or of how, as the former Bishop of Shrewsbury (why is he not on the list?) observed:
The EU’s commitment to its member states means it can be a bad neighbour to outsiders. Its actions impact adversely on poorer countries through various trade policies, most notably the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The EU’s export subsidies for EU agricultural products have disastrous consequences on food security and undercut agricultural sectors in the poorest nations. CAP is bad news for Africa. Jesus teaches us that our neighbour is not just our next door neighbour but everyone. Leaving the EU does not mean shunning Europe. We are Europeans and we will still have strong relationships with EU nations. Being able to make our own trade agreements, however, gives us opportunity to be more globally linked.
It is almost as if the organisers of the colloquium (who are they?) felt Brexiteer Christians have little or nothing to contribute on European ecumenical relations and Church unity – presumably because they are all inherently extremists and schismatics. It is almost as if whoever (?) signed off on this didn’t want to hear too much about the decades of moral thinking which has gone into possible post-Brexit scenarios:
As contributors to the debate, we bear a precious diversity of views. One principle which we nevertheless share, is the recognition that Europe is made richer by variety. The framework of opt-out ‘variable geometry’, though some curse it as the bane of uniformity and bureaucratic regularity, is in reality this continent’s greatest treasure. By allowing nations to choose their own paths, we create through free association a political construct in which all may feel at home: a Europe of Many Circles.
This model of Europe is not, of course, on offer (nor is the Europe of ‘Christian values’): the longed-for European Union of subsidiarity and democratic cooperation (if it ever existed) has been subsumed to the Union of aloof bureaucracy and anti-democratic coercion. In a colloquium on the unity of European Churches in the context of Brexit, you might think that notions of national subsidiarity and contextual theology might provide a richer vision for divergent European nations, but no one has been asked to deliver a paper on that (how were those names selected?): no one will be arguing that the deepest needs and longings of so many restless Europeans has not and will never be met by the European Union. No one will be arguing that the moment of Brexit offers a generational opportunity and unique example to the EU to turn its eyes to the light of national renewal and a greater global destiny. No one will be arguing that the event of Brexit will be the moment of UK withdrawal from an increasingly anti-Christian cabal to take its place in the world as a force for moral transformation and economic righteousness, and that all of this will manifestly be good for ecclesial unity.
European cultures are not monochrome; the gospel must be shaped to each situation and context if it is to be received and understood. In language, custom, history and geography, each European Church has its own story which forms part of its identity, and those identities are first and foremost national because the Christian faith is incarnational. There is a commendable and righteous vision of Brexit which witnesses to reconciliation and sustains ecclesial communion because we are united by something far, far deeper than a 60-year-old marketised-materialist political construct. But we cannot apprehend the universal without feeling we belong to the local, and that local is not concerned with fragmentation, division and moral chaos – which is the apparent starting point of this colloquium – but with the primacy of truth, the promotion of freedom, of human dignity and rights, of justice and peace, the protection of life and of the environment, concern for the poor and disadvantaged. If history teaches us anything, it is that these are best achieved not by grandiose visions of supranational bureaucracies, but by local communities working in societies of kinship and cooperating with other societies who seek the divine image of neighbourly love.
The borders of the righteous nation state are not concerned with racial superiority, imperialism, systematic domination or self-serving exploitation, but with fraternity, security, accountability, transparency and liberty. You may believe that the universal Church works best where there are no borders, but when the purported universal becomes an agent of oppression, injustice and coercion, please don’t despise or dismiss those who pray and work for reformation in the depths of European consciousness and a return to a desire for common identity. The European Age of Secular Enlightenment is no substitute for Christendom: pan-European bureaucratic institutions will never supplant the national vibrancy of Christian expression. This is what Christian Brexiteers believe: it’s just a shame their voice will be drowned out at Lambeth Palace on Friday by a ratio of 20:1.