A bishop the Church of England should be proud of (but won’t be)
Mark Rylands, Bishop of Shrewsbury, is one of the very few Christian leaders to come down on the right side of the EU referendum debate, having admitted in a letter to the Church Times that he voted Leave on 23 June.
From Bishop Rylands’ letter:
At my bishops’ cell group in May, I came out as a Brexit bishop. My episcopal friends, at first, did not believe me. The following 24 hours brought some lively conversation, mixed with a certain amount of gentle mocking.
Yes, I voted to leave the European Union. I did so for all the usual reasons that were cited over the past months: democratic deficit, huge central staff salaries, waste of resources in Brussels and Strasbourg, loss of both sovereignty and oversight of UK laws.
I have long hoped for the reformation of the EU. In February, I felt pity for David Cameron as he hailed a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It showed that the EU leaders did not see the need for any reformation. It smacked of arrogance.
While in agreement with the EU’s outlook on tackling climate change, and its policies on GM seeds, I had other reasons for voting Leave:
- The EU’s commitment to its member states means it can be a bad neighbour to outsiders. Its actions have an adverse impact on poorer countries through various trade policies, most notably the Common Agricultural Policy. The EU’s export subsidies for EU agricultural products have disastrous consequences for food security, and undercut agricultural sectors in the poorest nations. 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 an opportunity to be more globally linked.
- The EU does not seem to be good news for the poorest nations in the eurozone. Countries in the single currency, struggling economically, appear stuck with low growth. Unable to devalue their currency, they are trapped in a rut of depression. Youth unemployment in Spain, Greece, and Italy has soared, and extremist political groups are gaining a strong foothold.
The letter goes on to list other compelling reasons, and ends with this exhortation:
Listening to the marginalised: our hope is in Christ who unites all of us. The referendum has highlighted faultlines and divisions in our society. Churches are called, like Christ, to stand with the voiceless and the marginalised. Some of those voices have been racist and xenophobic. We are not aligning with these, of course. We must, however, align ourselves with those who feel unheard, not allowing them to be dismissed as “uneducated” and “stupid”. Why are so many people so angry? The new work around mission on urban estates may have something to teach us here. But let’s not forget that the rural poor have also spoken loud and clear in this referendum.
Being in Europe does not mean you have to be in the EU. All across the UK, there are towns and villages twinned with towns and villages in France and Germany. And there are many dioceses that have formal links with other dioceses across Europe. Sharing meals and hospitality; exploring faith and ideas, enjoying laughter and conversation with our neighbours across the Channel: Let’s do more of it! Such hospitality can strengthen our bonds of friendship more than any policy or agreement. After all, loving football does not mean you have to love FIFA.
The FIFA/EU comparison is brilliant. The endemically corrupt world governing body of football represents the love that millions of people have for the game of soccer no more than the creaking, anachronistic and profoundly antidemocratic European Union represents Europe, or the sole vision of European cooperation and solidarity. This is a point always worth emphasising, and a welcome antidote to the usual “puppies and rainbows” bilge spewed by apologists about the EU’s supposedly benign intentions.
Archbishop Cranmer is impressed:
If you pray, please do so for the witness and courage of Mark Rylands, Bishop of Shrewsbury. He understands the unification of ethics and politics; of moral duties and the exercise of virtue. He views Brexit in the context of God’s comprehensive governance and divine jurisprudence. He reshapes the geo-political ethic to comply with the doctrine of Christian compassion and salvation. He is prepared to speculate on a different truth from that set forth by the Established Episcopacy. In short, Mark Rylands interprets distinctively the nature of European goodness, and preaches a higher practical judgment; a greater pleasure and happiness. The Church needs a few more like him.
It is worth noting that his coming out as a Brexit Bishop was initially a cause of disbelief among his fellow clergy, followed by “lively conversation” and then some “gentle mocking”. Please don’t read over those apparently affable reactions without considering that incredulity may be infused with contempt; “lively conversation” may be interspersed with derision and disparagement; and “gentle mocking” may tease and taunt, but beneath the chaff is the condescending sneer of those who know better, which easily becomes an expression of ‘hate’.
Does the Dean of Exeter think the Bishop of Shrewsbury is “stupid”? Does the Dean of Manchester believe the Brexit Bishop is “racist”? Does the Dean Emeritus of Durham berate him for acquiring a few new fascist and anti-Semitic “friends”? Is this the new division: Remain sheep and Brexit goats? Is this what Mark Rylands meant by “lively conversation” and “gentle mocking”?
(The Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, likewise expressed eurosceptic opinions and outrage at the campaign of fear and intimidation waged by the Remain side, but did not openly declare his support for Brexit.)
I shall certainly say a prayer of thanksgiving for the leadership, witness and remarkable moral courage of Mark Rylands in openly defying the leaders of his own church when he realised that they had strayed into temporal matters on entirely the wrong side of the EU referendum debate.
When so many Christian leaders let their flocks down by thoughtlessly and uncritically singing hymns of praise to the European Union throughout the referendum campaign, either ignoring EU’s manifest failings or insisting contrary to all evidence that the beast could somehow be reformed, Bishop Rylands made the right call.
If only there were more bishops like him. Standing up against an antidemocratic, relentlessly tightening and public opinion-resistant political union in favour of democracy and self-determination should not be a niche interest within the Church.
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