Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

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Donald Trump, World’s Best Christian

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If you seriously believe that Donald Trump understands the Christian faith, has read the Bible or would choose the defence of religious values and freedom over some other passing whim while serving as president, then I have a bridge across the River Thames to sell you

Eric Zorn has a great column in the Chicago Tribune in which he systematically takes apart Donald Trump’s pretence that he is a Serious Christian and the default choice for those voting with their Christian faith foremost in their minds.

Zorn writes:

Nothing illustrates what a flim-flam man Donald Trump is better than his frequent and oily allusions to the Bible.

It is his favorite book, he tells the credulous masses at his rallies. Nobody reads it more than he does.

But a review of the record suggests he may not have read it at all.

During a televised interview with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics in August 2015, Halperin noted Trump’s frequent professions of fondness for Judeo-Christian scripture and said, “I’m wondering what one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are and why.”

“I wouldn’t want to get into it,” Trump said, “because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal so I don’t want to get into verses. The Bible means a lot to me but I don’t want to get into specifics.”

“Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?” Heilemann asked.

“Probably equal,” Trump said. “I think it’s just incredible, the whole Bible is incredible.”

How utterly convincing. Zorn continues:

That unfamiliarity showed up again in April when host Bob Lonsberry of WHAM-AM in Rochester, N.Y., broached the subject in a phone interview: “Is there a favorite Bible verse or Bible story that has informed your thinking or your character through life, sir?”

“Well, I think many,” answered the would-be exegete-in-chief. “I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And I tell people, look, ‘An eye for an eye,’ you can almost say that.”

You can, sure.

But not only is “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” an Old Testament verse that condones barbaric vengeance (“… hand for hand, foot for foot,” it goes on, “burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise”) it was also expressly repudiated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

I get it. Actually making time to sit down and read the Bible every day while trying to internalise parts of it is tough. Particularly, I imagine, when you are rich and famous and your free time is largely given over to grabbing women “by the pussy”. Personally, I have only read the entire Bible cover-to-cover once, when I was eighteen and preparing for my adult confirmation into the Roman Catholic church after converting from Anglicanism. More than a decade later I am now finally trying to do so again, with the help of a great online Bible app which comes with a manageable “Bible in a year” reading plan.

The point of which being that it is fairly easy to spot someone who has actually attempted the feat and possesses a genuine (if still somewhat patchy, like mine) familiarity with the Bible, and somebody who is just putting on an act, attempting to fake religious observance as a kind of cultural marker. And Trump clearly falls into the latter category.

Eric Zorn concludes:

Is Trump the first politician to exaggerate his piety in order to win favor with the American public, 70 percent of which identifies as Christian and 6 percent of which identifies as belonging to another faith tradition?

No, but he’s the worst at it — the most transparent — that we’ve ever seen on the national stage.

It’s not just that he’s a brazen Bible huckster, it’s that he’s really bad at it.

Those who put their faith in him should prepare to have it shattered.

This is depressing for all those Christians who have been taken in by Donald Trump’s false displays of piety, as well as those resigned Christians who recognise that Trump is a charlatan but feel that Trump represents a better bulwark against attacks on their values and way of life than Hillary Clinton.

But it is also darkly amusing. Because for eight years it has been the habit of more than a few Republican Party politicians to insinuate that President Barack Obama is somehow not a Christian, or even that he is a closet Muslim, despite endless evidence of the Obama family attending church and Obama himself being capable of speaking about his faith without getting completely tongue-tied or reporting to bland banalities. Some Republicans stood up to the “Obama is a Muslim” hysteria – notably John McCain at a town hall meeting during the 2008 presidential campaign. But many others remained cynically silent, allowing prejudice and misinformation to take hold, thinking that it would advantage them politically.

And now it is the GOP’s turn to field a presidential candidate who doesn’t merely “exaggerate his piety” but effectively invents it from thin air to get himself out of a tight spot in a TV interview. Of course, the Democrats are in absolutely no position to take advantage of this fact – Hillary Clinton is a Christian, like Obama, but has chosen to downplay her faith in this election because many of her supporters place more faith in the god of Social Justice and Identity Politics than the God of the Old and New Testaments.

As Ben Wolfgang notes in the Washington Times:

Hillary Clinton’s Christianity, which she wielded as a political weapon in her 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, largely has been missing in this year’s election.

She hasn’t hidden her Methodist upbringing, but scholars say it’s not front and center. And where in the past she used it as a window into her character, this year she’s deployed it as a debate tactic to push criminal justice reform and other policy goals.

Church attendance also has been all but absent from Mrs. Clinton’s schedule, except when she’s turned up behind a pulpit to stump for votes, particularly in predominantly black churches, where her appearances focus largely on how she intends to work with religious leaders to accomplish shared political objectives.

Since 2008 she’s also abandoned traditional Christian positions on issues such as same-sex marriage, coming in favor of the practice in 2013 after years of opposing it.

The reason for the shift, analysts say, is twofold. Mrs. Clinton is taking on an opponent, Republican Donald Trump, who is seen as one of the most nonreligious presidential candidates in modern history. Pew polling from earlier this year found that just 30 percent of American voters say they consider Mr. Trump religious, while 48 percent said the same about Mrs. Clinton.

Perhaps more importantly, she now leads a party that, among its white base, if not its core black and Hispanic members, has become an increasingly secular institution. Recent polling shows the Democratic Party includes in its ranks nearly four times as many atheists and agnostics as the GOP.

Ultimately, the “Donald Trump is a better Christian than Hillary Clinton” argument comes to the two candidates’ respective positions on abortion. And if abortion is a deal-breaker for you then yes, Trump’s currently stated position on abortion (which has certainly changed since his liberal days of a few years back, as well as during this campaign, both without satisfactory explanation) is more in line with Church teaching about the sanctity of life.

But as with all of Donald Trump’s other stated policy positions, there is absolutely nothing to give confidence that his current position either represents his true beliefs on the subject, or that he would not flip-flop on the issue without a second thought if he saw political value in doing so.

Christians – particularly Evangelicals – should really be used by now to cynical Republican politicians who have trained themselves to speak the language, say the right things and push all the right buttons on social issues in pursuit of the evangelical vote, only to sell out the movement once safely ensconced in power. George W. Bush won a tough 2004 re-election campaign against John Kerry in spite of his disastrous mismanagement of the Iraq invasion and its aftermath largely by switching the focus to social issues, namely gay marriage, in order to motivate his base. And in nearly every election before and since, evangelicals have been flattered, threatened and otherwise called upon to support the Republican candidate only to have their causes betrayed or ignored after election day once their usefulness was over.

Donald Trump is doing exactly the same thing all over again. But he is so inept and transparent in his attempt to feign Christian piety that a fool should be able to see through his cynical machinations. And yet many bright and decent people are taken in by Trump’s amateur act.

Don’t get me wrong – Hillary Clinton, largely beholden to the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, will be no great defender of religious freedom or interests. But Donald Trump will be little better, as Christians should realise from bitter past experience and Trump’s unique untrustworthiness when it comes to holding true to his stated beliefs on fundamental issues.

Neither candidate, in office, would be a great friend of religion, though Donald Trump would likely continue to pay more lip service to Christian priorities thanks to the composition of the Republican Party. But both options are pretty bleak, and Christians seeking to vote based on their faith would actually be well advised to admit defeat and make their choice based on some other criteria.

Whoever wins this election, it looks quite safe to say that Christianity will lose.

 

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The Church Of England’s Tantrum Over The EU Referendum Result Is Insulting To Brexit-Supporting Christians

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Nearly a month after Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union, swathes of the Church’s leadership are stuck in furious denial

This blog had very little time for the Revd. Dr. Robert Innes, the Church of England’s Bishop of Europe, before the EU referendum and Britain’s shocking, wonderful decision to leave the EU. But it has even less time for his incessant, self-pitying (and democracy-loathing) moaning in the weeks since that historic vote.

The Archbishop Cranmer blog reports:

“Let me be clear,” said the Rt Rev’d Dr Robert Innes, Bishop of Europe, as he addressed the General Synod of the Church of England. “From my European perspective, this Referendum and its result represent a sad loss of national vocation; an abject failure of political leadership; and a squandering of the birthright of our young people.” And Synod applauded their Euro-prophet for a full 10 seconds, seemingly oblivious to the fact that lay Anglicans voted for Brexit in their droves (and by a majority). “Britain seems to be a country anxious to build fences,” he added, before reminding the people of God that his task as a bishop is to build bridges. Not to the wider world, it seems. Or even to the 22 nations of Europe which aren’t in the European Union, which includes the supremest bridge Pontifex himself, all neatly fenced off in Vatican City State. But Dr Innes’ task as a bishop is to build bridges to the other nations of the European Union, and without political union he is seemingly bereft and hindered from doing so.

Cranmer goes on to highlight Bishop Innes’ complete and utter disregard and disdain for the pro-Brexit opinions of many lay Christians:

The Bishop of Europe acknowledges that some in his Diocese were pleased with the Referendum result, but he doesn’t tell their stories. They are sidelined, disdained and ignored: they don’t quite fit the Bishop’s narrative of shame, anger and deep sadness. “One older man in Paris said to me: ‘I have never been so ashamed of my country.’ A lady in Geneva said to me: ‘I have found it hard to stop being angry.’” There’s no apprehension of joy, liberty, hope or optimism: no awareness of the abundance of bridges we can now build into the whole world. For the Bishop of Europe, British identity and national vocation were wrapped up in ever closer political union: there is no refuge or strength to be found in Brexit.

Christians who voted to leave the EU did so for a variety of reasons, and none of them is worthy of less consideration than the shame of the old man in Paris or the anger of the lady in Geneva. Do we not also seek to cooperate and fellowship with other churches in Europe? Do we not pray to avoid harm and relieve suffering? Are we any less concerned with human rights, the common good or injustice? Are we incapable of loyalty to brotherhood and respect for authority? Is our ethic simply one of nationalistic purity, individualism and xenophobia?

[..] Is there not an echo in our historic national vocation of looking out to the seas and saving Europe from herself? Rather than being an abject failure of political leadership, might Brexit not represent a noble and commendable success? Instead of squandering the birthright of our young people, might we not just have preserved their ancient rights and liberties as freeborn Britons?

One wonders exactly how long the British political and cultural establishment – of which the Church of England is a firm member – can go on being openly, seethingly contemptuous and angry at the British people without finding themselves on the receiving end of an eventual backlash which will make Donald Trump seem the epitome of polite restraint.

The way which those people of privilege and wealth (such as bishops, newspaper columnists and politicians) have conducted themselves since the EU referendum, staggering around the political landscape rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in despair at the prospect of being separated even an inch from their beloved European Union, is enough to induce nausea. It is particularly offensive when such arrogant and self-pitying emotions burst forth from people who fatuously claim to care about the whole of society while reserving a particular duty of care to exactly the type of disenfranchised, economically suffering people who voted for Brexit in their droves.

It is almost enough to make one pine for the days when the establishment merely ignored the concerns, priorities, hopes and dreams of ordinary people as the elite ravenously pursued their own interests. To a poor Christian, it was likely enough of an insult and stretching of Christ’s teaching to be ministered to by a disinterested bishop who lives in a mansion and sits in the House of Lords while they have to trudge five miles to the food bank. Now, as punishment for daring to vote for Brexit, now they must endure the same gulf in circumstances while also being harangued and accused of small-minded racism by some pampered upper middle class oik who uses the collection plate offerings of thousands of other economically struggling Christians to ride the Eurostar first class to “build bridges” with Europe while the social fabric of his own country continues to crumble.

How, one wonders, does the Church of England expect to survive when too few of its bishops follow the example set by Mark Rylands, Bishop of Shrewsbury, who approached the EU question fairly and with the interests of the world’s poorest at heart rather than the interests of Britain’s ruling elites, and determined that Brexit was best for British democracy and for the world’s poor?

How does the Church of England expect to survive when the face it presents to the nation (and its own congregations) too often resembles the contemptuous face of Bishop Robert Innes, horrified by the great unwashed in all their uneducated xenophobia, and the democratic decision they made to leave the European Union?

Quo usque tandem abutere, episcopus, fides nostra?

 

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Brexit: One Good Bishop Admits Voting To Leave The European Union

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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.

While noting:

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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Britain’s Religious Leaders Squander Their Moral Authority By Supporting The EU And Forsaking Democracy

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Another day, another insidious, arrogant attempt by religious leaders to suggest that God is a paid-up member of the Remain campaign

Read this portentous intervention in the EU referendum debate and tell me it isn’t the most fatuous, ignorant, sanctimonious bilge to be uttered by religious community leaders and supposed people of God in recent memory:

Faith is about integration and building bridges, not about isolation and erecting barriers. As leaders and senior figures of faith communities, we urge our co-religionists and others to think about the implications of a Leave vote for the things about which we are most passionate.

The past 70 years have been the longest period of peace in Europe’s history. Institutions that enable us to work together and understand both our differences and what we share in common contribute to our increased security and sense of collective endeavour.

What’s more, so many of the challenges we face today can only be addressed in a European, and indeed a global, context: combating poverty in the developing world, confronting climate change and providing the stability that is essential to tackling the migration crisis.

We hope that when voting on 23 June, people will reflect on whether undermining the international institutions charged with delivering these goals could conceivably contribute to a fairer, cleaner and safer world.

The letter is naturally signed by all of the usual suspects:

Rt Rev Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury; Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Movement for Reform Judaism; Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general, Muslim Council of Britain; Jasvir Singh, chair, City Sikhs Network

Rt Rev Dr Ian Bradley, Church of Scotland & Reader in Church History and Practical Theology, University of St Andrews

Baroness Butler-Sloss, Chair, Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life

The Rt Rev Professor Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Emeritus Professor of Divinity, Gresham College, Honorary Professor of theology, King’s College London & Former Bishop of Oxford

The Rt Rev Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

The list goes on. Sadly, from a personal perspective, it includes Bishop Thomas McMahon of the Diocese of Brentwood, who confirmed me into the Catholic church as a young, eighteen year old convert.

But if this ignorant waffle is the best thinking that modern Christianity can bring to bear on the EU referendum debate, then Christianity deserves to be in decline for it has ceased to be any kind of intellectual (let alone moral) force in this country.

If these learned people – many from the higher echelons of the establishment, some of them with theological doctorates to their name  – genuinely can’t discern the difference between leaving one supranational political institution one the one hand and disengaging North Korea-like from the entire world on the other, then they deserve neither our respect nor the media’s airtime. And if they do discern the difference but choose to pretend to their congregations that Brexit means automatic isolationism, then they need to go back and consult their respective holy books to remind themselves what is written about bearing false witness.

Putting political preferences aside for a moment, anybody of faith in this country – Brexiteer or Remainer – should be appalled by this clumsy and ignorant intervention. For if religion is to continue to play a meaningful role in public life (as it should), the representatives of our faith surely have a duty to understand the issues on which they choose to intervene.

One has to earn the right to be listened to and taken seriously in the public square, and the surest way to forfeit that right is to talk loudly from a position of ignorance. And if this letter in the Observer reveals anything, it is a wellspring of ignorance. Ignorance about what the European Union is, why it was created and the direction in which it is plainly, openly heading. Ignorance about the true foundations of peace in Europe – liberal democracy, post-war economic growth and NATO. Ignorance about the future of global trade and regulation. And a profound ignorance (or at least a tendency to conveniently shut out the example) of the rest of the world, which has conspicuously avoided grouping itself into the type of regional supranational political bloc which the bishops bizarrely claim is essential to freedom and prosperity.

Where is the thought here? Where is the serious introspection, the good faith effort to actually listen to the opposing side (the importance of which religious leaders often lecture us) rather than go charging in to battle against a dishonestly constructed straw man? How, in short, is any Brexit-supporting Christian (or follower of any other faith represented in this car crash of an intervention) supposed to respect or feel respected by their spiritual leaders, after no less a figure than a former Archbishop of Canterbury made it quite plain in the pages of the observer that he believes that Brexiteers are literally seeking to undermine peace in Europe for no good reason?

Can the bishops point to a chapter and verse direction in the Bible that nations should seek to merge their political institutions together slowly and by stealth, while claiming that it is somehow necessary in order to underpin free trade? Of course not. Can the bishops highlight a specific injunction from the Lord clarifying that “building bridges” with neighbours means seeking some kind of continent-wide homogeneity? No. Tumbleweeds. The theological case for European political union is nothing more than a wheedling, hand-wringing, simpering assertion that because Jesus commanded us to love one another as He loved us, we should nod our heads and go along with one specific plan for European integration dreamed up by old men scarred from the memory of two world wars.

(In case you protest that a short OpEd in a newspaper is no place to set out complex arguments in full, I refer you to my pieces hereherehere and here, where I extensively discuss the fact that a solid Christian case in favour of the European Union has yet to be made by any religious leader in the course of this sorry EU referendum debate).

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If the story of religious intervention in the EU referendum thus far teaches us anything, it is that those who claim to lead our faith groups and communities are profoundly ignorant both about the country in which they live, and the world with which they seek to engage.

But worse than that, the bishops are often ignorant about their own flocks and congregations, many of whom have solidly moral and intellectual reasons for wanting Britain to leave the European Union, and who deserve better than to be effectively labelled as harbingers of the apocalypse by virtue-signalling prelates who are either too lazy to learn or too disingenuous to admit that the EU is not the alpha and the omega of democracy, trade and international cooperation.

At some point – maybe not on June 23, but probably in years rather than decades – the European Union will face a true crisis of democracy and legitimacy, as the passions of the narrow-minded European political elites diverge ever further from the interests of the people they lead. Whether this leads to civil unrest, antidemocratic coups d’etat or the breakup of the EU itself remains to be seen. But those bishops and other faith leaders who so airly signed their names to this letter proclaiming that anything other than a vote to Remain in the EU essentially means cheering on climate change, war and pestilence will find themselves dangerously exposed (which is perhaps why they have done so in their own names, but their organisations have held back).

For when the EU’s final crisis of democracy comes, the names of these faith leaders who today encouraged us to remain in the European Union will be mud. And deservedly so, for they have betrayed democracy either through their ignorance or their invidious EUphilia.

And if the bishops think that they and their values are being squeezed out of the public square now, they should wait until they are permanently associated in the public mind with actively working to keep Britain chained inside this failing, antidemocratic, euro-federalist experiment.

When the EU’s day of reckoning finally comes, the signatories to this letter may well yearn for that happy time when the public was merely indifferent about religion.

 

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Top Image: Telegraph

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