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.
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.
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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