More Christian Brexit Hysteria From The Anglican Church

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To believe that Brexit is the greatest threat to Britain’s Christian heritage and values is profoundly misguided

The people over at Reimagining Europe are at it again.

The Rt. Revd. Dr. Gregory Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph, is concerned that Britain may be about to throw it’s European-given Christian heritage out with the EU bathwater. One might consider it strange that he considers Brexit to be the existential threat to British Christianity rather than, say, increasing secularisation or the aggressive attacks by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics on what were once traditional Christian family values, but such is the way of things these days within the Churches of England and Wales.

Bishop Cameron writes:

In spite of the fact that the Bible has more to say about the distribution of wealth, social justice and the welfare of nations than ever it does about eternal life, Christianity and religion have gently been tidied away by many to the sidelines of political life. To ask therefore about a “Christian Brexit” might provoke the response “Why should there even be talk of such a thing?” While fear of religious extremism may have fuelled the leave vote, Brexit is trumpeted as a clinical economic exercise, perhaps with a little national pride thrown in but free from ideological fancy. So many might wonder why would religion get mixed up in it?

In fact, Christian philosophy is something woven into the very fabric of British society.  It undergirds many of our attitudes and values, even if the rationales have become obscure, and the foundations repudiated by many.  Christianity came to us from the continent, and bound us to the continent, whether it was the mission of Pope Gregory to the Angles on the cusp of the seventh century, or the repudiation of one sort of Europe (the Catholic) in order to embrace another (the Protestant) in the sixteenth.  Even if we’ve chosen to renounce the politics of European integration, this doesn’t imply a rejection of a shared European culture – which is just as well given that most of British culture derives from a classical and Christian European past.  Could there even be a Britain without Christendom, the Angevin Empire, and the struggles for the European soul played out in the Napoleonic and World War conflicts?

It’s great that somebody is now asking these questions. I’m just astonished that the good bishop has identified Brexit as the greatest threat to this cultural heritage, rather than any of the other far more pressing issues. Of course Britain would not exist in anything like it’s current form without Christendom. Why does that mean that Britain should have voted to remain in a supranational political union beset with so many problems and unloved by so many?

And of course renouncing the EU’s explicitly political union and integrationist purpose does not mean that we reject our “shared European culture”. Given that Bishop Cameron understands that these are two different things, one wonders why he is concerned that rejecting one would even endanger the other.

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So which Christian values do I wish to see thrive in a Britain set apart?  One of the worst aspects of the Brexit vote, much commented upon, was the permission unintentionally given for xenophobia.  Too many immigrants (even to the third or fourth generation) are now made to feel unwelcome; too many folk have been given licence to be rude or violent.  I want to see a Britain which affirms our human connectness and the fundamental attitudes of respect and hospitality.  We need a people centred Brexit, which respects the individual choices and irrevocable commitments that immigrants and ex pats have made about their futures in the expectation of a border free Europe which is now slipping away from us.

I’ll have to take the bishop’s word for this. I have many friends and acquaintances in parts of the country condescendingly referred to by elites as “Brexitland“, but I myself live in cosmopolitan London, where Brexiteers and not “immigrants” are the scorned and endangered species. And while I do not question the veracity of media reports of xenophobic and racist incidents in the wake of the EU referendum campaign, from my own experience of strongly pro-Brexit places such as Stoke-on-Trent or my hometown of Harlow, neither have I witnessed anything like the wave of supposed anti-immigrant sentiment which the left-wing, pro-EU media insist is taking place.

Furthermore, if third and fourth generation immigrants are being made to feel unwelcome, clearly this is an issue which extends far beyond Brexit and Britain’s place in the European Union. As with the disastrous start to Donald Trump’s presidency in America, there is a tendency to blame every bad thing that happens in Britain on Brexit rather than seek to intelligently separate those factors which existed prior to the referendum and need addressing separately, and those which are legitimately connected with Britain leaving the EU.

The bishop then waxes lyrical about the “irrevocable commitments that immigrants and ex pats have made about their futures”. I’m sorry, but I have to take issue with this. The ultimate expression of making an irrevocable commitment to a new country that you want to call home is to become a citizen of that country. When my wife and I eventually move back to the United States, I eagerly look forward to the day when I receive my US citizenship as it will be an acknowledgement of the commitment I am making to that great country. Why should it be any different for somebody who intends to permanently settle and build their new life in Britain?

While EU citizens have been bribed for several decades with promises of a “borderless world” – while politicians have simultaneously kept silent about the damage done by undermining the nation state through the EU project – there is in fact nothing abnormal about expecting people to take that final oath of loyalty and allegiance before fully accepting them as a fellow countryman. You don’t prove your commitment to small-L liberal, British values simply by turning up, getting a job and starting a life here. An immigrant’s commitment to their new country should be more than the sum of the taxes that they pay and the personal enjoyment that they and their families receive as a result of making the move. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, citizenship is about asking what you can do for your (new) country, not just what your (new) country can do for you.

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I want to see a Britain which reasserts its care for the weakest in its own society and in the citizenry of the world; which is committed to international development and international exchange.  We need a culture which is open to and accepting of heterogeneity.  In such a future, “British” should not stand in contradiction to “European”, but incorporate an international spirit: a continuing commitment to lowering barriers and not raising them.

Now this is just generic leftist pablum. Do we not already have an extensive welfare state? Do we not already lead the world by (wrongly, in my opinion) devoting an extraordinary fixed percentage of our GDP to inefficient, government-administered international aid? “British” does not stand in contradiction to “European”. But rather than becoming interchangeable, as EU integration ultimately demands, in future

Of course we should remain an open and tolerant society, but a culture which is “open to and accepting of heterogeneity” to an unlimited degree is a culture which refuses to assert its own values, fails to properly assimilate new immigrants and which fosters breeding grounds for unimaginable, unforgivable horrors like the sexual abuse epidemic in Rotherham, or the infant mortality rate as a result of consanguineous relationships in the London Borough of Redbridge. One might expect a Church of Wales bishop to be at least as equally concerned with these social problems as with the feelings of immigrants who felt perfectly happy in Britain until the Brexit vote but who now apparently feel besieged and despised, but apparently this is too much to ask.

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Brexit may not be a spiritual or religious enterprise, but we do have to defend the best aspects of our national life to build a future of which to be proud.  All the churches, including the Church in Wales, have to engage vigorously in the public debate about Brexit and our society as advocates of a Christian vision of social inclusion and people centred politics.

No. The trouble is that the Church has been lustily involved in the Brexit debate all through the referendum campaign and now it’s aftermath, but in an incredibly one-sided manner. Almost to the last person (with a few honourable exceptions) the bishops and clergy have come down hard on the side of remaining in the EU, often argued by clerics with a tissue paper-thin understanding of the issues at hand but a burning desire to signal their progressive virtue.

Has Bishop Cameron ever stopped to consider how an ordinary, decent, Brexit-supporting person might feel when confronted with the Anglican church’s institutional metro-leftism and scornful opinion of Brexiteers? Has he stopped to think what effect the Archbishops of Canterbury and York might have on the Brexit-supporting faithful when they so transparently agitate in favour of remaining in the European Union, and cast aspersions on the morals of those who dared to take a different position?

The bishop’s article concludes:

In challenging times of change it falls to us to demonstrate what loving our neighbours really means.

Yes, it does. Bishop Cameron might like to reflect on how he lives out those values in his own ministry, with particular regard to how he engages with the sincere beliefs of those within his own Welsh diocese who voted in good conscience for Brexit, are now looking forward in a spirit of optimism to its enactment, and are perhaps hoping for some pastoral encouragement (rather than despairing forgiveness) as they do so.

Because if this article is any guide, he has a long journey ahead of him.

 

 

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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 10 – Less Lamentation, More Outreach Required From The Church

The fall of Babylon

If the Church wants to survive as a truly national institution rather than amplifying the already-inescapable voices of anguished middle-class Remainers, it had better come to terms with Brexit 

Displaying a complete lack of self-awareness and a fierce, proud disinterest in the lives and opinions of her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to vote in good conscience for Brexit, Alison Elliot – Associate Director of the Centre for Theology at the University of Edinburgh – wails into the Church of England’s Reimagining Europe blog:

The Church has many resources that are not available to politicians. Politicians are practitioners of the art of the possible: they keep the show on the road, nudging it in varying directions; they fix things; they make promises within a limited horizon.

But the Church has permission to sing songs – songs of lament, songs of confession, songs of hope. I submit that all are necessary today. Lament that is unrecognised expresses itself in anger and accusation; lack of confession leads to mistakes being perpetuated; and hope gives direction to our decisions and our action.

Songs of lament? Oh boy.

Lament names the ache and the void we carry around with us. For me, that involves the pain of a fractured European identity, where my claim to the rich heritage of our continent is being attenuated; where our neighbours continue to shape their future, painful as that may be, and we watch from the side-lines. It involves lamenting the drabness of a world diminished by limited freedom of movement, as multi-lingual chatter disappears from our high streets, we lose the efficiency and enthusiasm of European tradesmen, and our universities struggle to keep a vibrant exchange of ideas alive. And I mourn the rejection of the great insight of the European Project whereby economic activity and social values go hand in hand.

There’s no point in refuting any of this – the fact that Elliot remains every bit as “European” as ever she was, that identity never having been contingent on Britain’s membership of a supranational political union; the risible idea that the remaining EU27, paralysed by indecision and self-interest while currency and humanitarian crises rend them asunder, are in any way proactively “shap[ing] their future”; the hysterical belief that the “world” has been “diminished by limited freedom of movement” when most of the world was excluded from the arrangement and before we know the outcome of the Brexit negotiations; the unsubstantiated notion that Britain’s world-class universities are struggling to keep the torch of knowledge alight in this new Brexit dark age; the tremulous fear that foreign voices will now disappear from our high streets in a puff of smoke as Britain drifts gently away into the mid-Atlantic.

There is no point arguing any of these points with Alison Elliot, for if she is still repeating these tropes now then she is clearly impervious to reason, her mind closed to any argument that could be made by a sane Brexiteer while the gates of her credulity remain opened wide to the most fatuous and cataclysmic of Remainer myths and assertions.

To ache and carry around a “void” because of Britain’s secession from the European Union is quite simply to misunderstand what the EU really is – unless you are a closet euro federalist, which despite her misty eyed despair at the thought of Brexit, Elliot has given no indication that she identifies as such.

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Confession follows on easily from lament. I confess that I missed opportunities to share with people at home the excitement and the depth of reflection from meetings with church partners in Europe, acquiescing too easily with the view that Britain isn’t interested in Europe. I confess to leaving it to others to support refugees and to publicise the contribution our migrant communities have made to the country. And I confess to having done too little to engage local communities in the decisions that affect them.

Yes, if only there had been more head-in-the-clouds theologians waffling on about the benefits of European ecumenism (as though the doggedly secular humanist EU played any real role in forging and facilitating such exchanges) then Stoke-on-Trent might not have voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. That was the Remain campaign’s real problem.

Elliott confesses to “leaving it to others to support refugees”, which is a self-criticism applying to most of us, who do little beyond support the government’s efforts with our taxes. But she displays no such introspection about failing to support her own countrymen, particularly those who found themselves at the sharp end of globalisation (as in being made unemployed and unemployable rather than enjoying the kind of back-slapping church conferences in Barcelona and Bruges that perhaps characterised the church’s more positive experience of European integration) and whose votes ultimately helped to push the uninspiring Leave campaign over the finish line in the EU referendum.

And this is a criticism I direct not only at Alison Elliot – who seems to belong to that well-intentioned-but-dim group of academics and theologians who automatically believe everything good they hear about the EU and everything bad that the Guardian tells them about Brexiteers – but at the church in general. The church (or vast swathes of it) are in grave danger of being seen as brimming over with love, time and compassion for everybody – minorities, economic migrants, refugees – but the vast majority of ordinary Britons, particularly the working and lower middle “striving” classes.

That’s not to say that the church is wrong to devote a large proportion of its efforts to help the most vulnerable; of course they should do so. But clearly they are not spending enough time ministering to people like the Leave voters of Sunderland and Stoke, or to people like me and other principled EU opponents. Because if they were, then bishops and theologians would know more about the arguments for Brexit and the motivations of Brexiteers, rather than continuing to portray us as two-dimensional Guardian caricatures. They would recognise the cultural dislocation and economic disruption rending their own parishes, diocese and communities rather than fixing the full extent of their gaze on problems beyond our shores.

Elliot concludes:

Hope names a future that is at odds with the one we seem to be embracing. Let us hope for a future of international cooperation, where nations put their resources and fortunes at the disposal of others rather than hugging them to themselves. A future where citizens engage with politics at a deeper level than being observers to a soap opera and where they reconnect with each other to construct a rich tapestry of social relationships. A future where economic opportunism is kept in its place and the quality of life of our suppliers and their families is part of the equation. A future where we value the intrinsic worth of strangers as well as friends and recognise the part they can play in realising our dreams.

Tomorrow we will put our technocratic hats on again and plan and envision and mobilise for outcomes and scenarios, but first we need to connect with our grief and our fears. From that we will be liberated to face the challenges ahead.

When half of one’s community is celebrating and the other half mourning, a church leader or theologian worth their salt would quickly turn to asking whether there isn’t some deeper misunderstanding at play – confusion with regard to motives, for example. Most Remainers are not the self-hating, anti-patriotic drones that they are sometimes portrayed as by Brexiteers. And most Brexiteers are not the snarling, selfish, little-Englander xenophobes that they are painted by Remainers.

The trouble is, by talking about “connect[ing] with our grief”, singing songs of lament and donning the sackcloth and ashes in response to Brexit, the church (well represented on this subject by Elliot) firmly takes the side of one half of the country over the other half. Rather than seeking to find those unifying strands – acknowledging the EU’s real flaws and legitimate reasons for departure while seeking out ways to preserve and strengthen that which was good outside of the supranational union – the church becomes an introverted talking shop for Remainers who have made their contempt and dislike for Brexit Britain quite clear, and who have nothing to say to the 52 percent who voted Leave.

Put it this way: if the tide turned and you finally got to have your say in the running of the country after someone else (the pro-Europeans) had had things their way for forty years straight, and then the church planted itself firmly (by roll call of senior figures if not official policy) on the side of your opponents, weeping at the supposed injustice and ruin of your moment of triumph, would you be inclined to listen to them about anything else? Would you feel valued and respected in their eyes?

Perhaps that might not matter if the church were a business, free to choose its target demographic and focus its efforts on appealing to a lucrative niche market. But such behaviour – as we are essentially now seeing from too many church leaders – is entirely antithetical to the universal mission of the church.

There are many reasons why the church (particularly the Church of England) faces an existential threat in this country – secularisation, changing social norms and the increasing criminalisation of traditional beliefs and speech all play a part. The blame cannot be laid at the foot of any one single cause.

But deliberately scorning and misunderstanding half the country while effectively turning the church into a therapy group for devastated middle-class Remainers certainly will not help matters.

Now is not the time for garment-rending and tedious songs of lament. Now is the time for the church to put down the smelling salts, roll up its sleeves and redouble its outreach and ministry to Brexit Britain.

 

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Quote For The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent interview of writer and professor David Hillel Gelernter:

Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.

Think of the extraordinary blaze-up of art in America in the postwar years, especially the 1950s and first half of the ‘60s: painting above all; choreography in New York (Balanchine, Robbins, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and other regional companies); serious music, led by Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts broadcast  nationwide by CBS; intense interest in new American novelists; Frost; the Americanized Auden, Eliot and Delmore Schwartz; the great quartet of European masters as seen from the US: Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Chagall; the European film as an art form (Swedish, Italian and French––Hitchcock’s Birds, for that matter, opened in the early ‘60s at MOMA); in the architecture of the Americans Wright and Kahn and Eero Saarinen, and the Europeans Mies and Corbu and Gropius; in the design of the Eames studio, in the museum show as an event, in drama and the Actor’s Studio; art-books, magazines, posters, high-fidelity audio, Lincoln Center, the Dick van Dyke show; a situation comedy with frequent episodes about the theater, galleries, art films–and on and on.

An astonishing era.

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

My emphasis in bold.

There is a bucketload of truth in this statement. As anyone who has tried to engage your average pro or anti-Trump or Brexit activist in conversation or debate about politics will attest, reasoned discussion is hard to come by, precisely because faith is now vested in political tribes rather than God. In fact, the politically neutral (or those who refuse to see Donald Trump as either Saint Ronald Reagan 2.0 or Hitler Reborn, Brexit as an unadulterated good or an unprecedented disaster) tend to have the hardest time of all – the new atheists and agnostics.

Partisans on either side are increasingly being defriended, blocked or ignored in the real world by those incapable of making the leap of empathy required to understand or forgive a vote for the opposing side. But agnostics and those in the middle face the ire of both sides, incredulous that they can neither see the self-evident worth of the “right” side or the existential danger of the “wrong” side.

It is worse now than it was a decade ago under the George W. Bush administration, and by all accounts it was worse then than it was before under Clinton, Bush senior or Reagan.

Most analysis of this phenomenon of polarisation and mutual incomprehension had focused on the impact that the internet and social media have had on our political discourse, and many of these discussions are valid. But Gelernter takes a different approach and reveals another, more sociological explanation for the current toxic atmosphere – one made all the more profound because of what it says about humanity rather than the technology we now use.

And who can deny Gelernter’s point? As religion and faith have receded, something has indeed taken its place. But it is no longer art, or that wonderful flourishing of high culture that the West saw in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is often decidedly low culture and politics which we elevate above all else – and particularly, for many people, the divisive and grievance-laden politics of identity and victimhood.

But I would add that science also helped to cushion what Gelernter calls the “collapse of religion”. Humanity was inspired by the space race and the Apollo Program – “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – and great shared human endeavours such as these. But humanity has not lifted its gaze above low earth orbit since 1972, and while other technological breakthroughs such as the mobile computing and the internet have revolutionised our lives, they have on balance tended to fuel the individualist and consumerist aspects of our society rather than the collective and the communal, let alone the spiritual.*

What is becoming manifestly clear is that we need something – be it a new flourishing of art (as Gelernter desires) or a great scientific or technological challenge – to help us once again lift our eyes above our own selves, circumstances and identity groups. More than a few political activists together in a room tend to quickly become insufferable. A whole society comprised entirely of such activists would be so much worse, as we are now starting to discover.

We need a common challenge or faith – whether it is a rekindling of the gentle patriotism spoken of by Andrew Sullivan or a tangible project of some kind – to remind us that we are more than the sum of our political opinions. And this means we need political leaders who dare to demand something of us rather than flatter us and promise us bountiful riches for no effort.

And so this blog asks again: set us a challenge.

 

*In Britain, mindless worship of the National Health Service – as exhibited today by more than 200,000 people who marched through central London in support of the NHS, demanding that more taxpayer money be shovelled into a healthcare system they venerate and claim to be the “envy of the world” despite the awkward fact that no other country has tried to replicate the NHS and many succeed in delivering better healthcare outcomes – has become the closest we have to a national religion. And while this might certainly count as blind faith or religious fervour, it does nothing meaningful to bring us together as a society.

 

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Texas

It is currently 29 degrees Celcius (84 Fahrenheit) on Christmas Eve in McAllen, Texas, and I am starting to regret not packing more shorts and t-shirts, as well as failing to remember to pack my sunglasses for the fifth consecutive year.

Christmas in the Rio Grande Valley is very different to the Christmases I knew growing up on the Hertfordshire-Essex border in southeast England, but it comes with its own unique and wonderful traditions – waiting in line with half the town to collect a delicious order of tamales from Delia’s, taking in a movie on the afternoon of Christmas Day, driving around to look at the most opulently decorated houses and streets, and of course attending bilingual English/Spanish Mass (complete with Mariachi music) at the local Catholic church or at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.

And of course there are the many unifying factors too, common to Christmas in Britain and America – coming together as a family, sharing a Christmas meal (including a smoked turkey over here), opening presents, making the day extra special for the children.

While I enjoy celebrating with my wife’s family here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas I also think of my dear family back home in England, including those who are sadly no longer with us but who had such a formative influence on me – particularly my grandparents and an aunt who did so much to make each Christmas special.

And of course I think of all of you, my growing family of readers on this blog. We agree, we argue, we (mostly) remain civil while passionately arguing our cases, we educate one another – or at least, you all educate me. I have a long reading list of new books and academic papers suggested by many of you which I hope to read in 2017 and a forthcoming New Year’s Resolution to read as many of them as possible, and hopefully reflect back a fraction of this distilled wisdom in the future pages of this blog.

To all those who are celebrating this weekend, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

 

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Music For The Day

“The Little Road To Bethlehem”, by Michael Head (words by Margaret Rose).

One of my favourite Christmas carols, sung here by the choir of Wells Cathedral, with Robert Karlsson-Bourke taking the solo part.

Another lovely recording here.

 

As I walked down the road at set of sun,
The lambs were coming homeward one by one.
I heard a sheepbell softly calling them,
Along the little road to Bethlehem

Beside an open door as I drew nigh,
I heard sweet Mary sing a lullaby.
She sang about the lambs at close of day,
And rocked her tiny King among the hay

Across the air the silver sheepbells rang.
‘The lambs are coming home’, sweet Mary sang.
‘Your star of gold, your star of gold is shining in the sky.
So sleep, my little King, go lullaby.’

As I walked down the road at set of sun,
The lambs were coming homeward one by one.
I heard a sheepbell softly calling them,
Along the little road to Bethlehem

 

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