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

Rowan Williams - Brexit - EU Referendum

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).

Christianity - Europe - EU - Brexit - 3

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.


Christianity - Europe - EU - Brexit

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A Friend Turns Fifty

As I was browsing The Spectator website earlier today, I noticed a link to a piece from their archives, an article written to mark the consecration of the newly built Coventry Cathedral on 25 May 1962, half a century ago:

Coventry Cathedral was a temporary spiritual home for me during my time studying at nearby Warwick University, particularly during my second year when the university forced us into off-campus housing in the city. Though I converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of eighteen, I quickly grew to love the Anglican service of Choral Evensong, which I would sometimes attend first at my college in Cambridge and later while studying at Warwick. Though these periods were not anything approaching a high water mark in my ebbing and flowing faith, I do have very fond memories of attending Choral Evensong in these places, and feeling closer to God when I did so.

Coventry Cathedral is a particularly inspiring place. You can walk from the still, quiet, grey remains of the old Cathedral (largely destroyed during the Coventry Blitz on 14th November 1940) to the beautifully designed and lit tranquility of the new building, and the feeling when doing so is quite remarkable.

Prime Minister Churchill views the remains of the old Cathedral

The thoughts of the Spectator’s reviewer are worth quoting at some length:

As I stood just inside the glazed ‘west’ wall of Coventry Cathedral, beneath John Hutton’s gaily engraved angels — running, jumping and standing still — I was stunned by the richness of John Piper’s baptistery window, the absolute rightness of the Sutherland tapestry which fills the whole wall behind the altar and the simplicity and serenity of the ‘great barn’ itself — Sir Basil Spence’s own words — in which, from the main entrance, they are the only immediately visible works of art.

It would have been shattering enough simply to see the live version of the building I had admired in models and drawings for several years; it was much more disturbing to hear it. Just by chance, as I approached the cathedral it had been completed — by being filled with music. I cannot remember a more moving experience. With my hand still on one of the tiny bronze door knobs, sculpted as a child’s head by Epstein, I was hit simultaneously by shapes, colours and sounds — the fourteen slender pillars of reinforced concrete which suspend the timber- and-concrete vaulted canopy beneath the roof; the perpetual sunshine that bursts from the centre of deeper colours in the eighty-four-foot-high Piper window, and the familiar hymn tune which reached me — as I reminded myself in an effort to keep emotion in its place — by courtesy of Mr. David Lepine (performing with four manuals and seventy-three speaking stops) aided by acoustic slabs of cork and Weyroc, placed high above the vaulting, and the sound-absorbent surfaces of Sutherland’s Christ in Glory.

I half hoped that by turning my mind towards technical achievements of this kind I would suppress the urge to go away without having the impertinence to write a single word of adverse criticism about the cathedral. So I tore my thoughts away from the simple beauty of the font (a scooped-out boulder from the Holy Land) and Ralph Beyer’s superbly carved lettering on the white stone panels that flank the nave, and tried very hard to see the cathedral as an elegant box of functional tricks. But I had to give in. This is a great and humbling building — a building in which trivial criticisms merely make the critic himself feel trivial. Of course it is a box of functional tricks; but every trick is inspired and designed to help the real user of the building. This is a machine for Worshipping in — a cathedral built round the Communion service.

The ruins of the old Cathedral seamlessly morph into the new building designed by Sir Basil Spence

I like that phrase, “a machine for worshipping in”. I find that it describes very well the utility and efficiency of the building and its contents, as well as the streamlined, modern beauty of the furnishings and commissioned artworks. To my (very) amateur architecture enthusiast mind, Spence’s design epitomises the very best of mid-century architecture. Given the era in which it was commissioned, designed and built, the new cathedral could so easily have been a drab grey brutalist building (not that I object to all of those, but more on that in another blog post), one of many that were being enthusiastically erected up and down the country.

Light streams in through the stained glass of the baptistry window

I will always remember one occasion, one of the first times that I attended evensong at Coventry cathedral. Attendance was particularly light that particular Sunday evening, so one of the Deacons beckoned me from my normal seat in the Nave to sit in the row of seats behind the choir on the raised platform at the front of the church as they sometimes did when there were few attendees. Once I had been guided to my new, front-seat location, however, the Deacon was distracted by some other issue and neglected to tell any of the other arriving congregation members to follow my lead. Soon there was a small gaggle of twenty or so elderly parishioners sitting in their normal places in the Nave, and then me, sitting on the raised section behind the choir, with one of Sir Basil Spence’s soft spotlights gently highlighting my solitude.

And then the organ started to play.

The choir and ministers started to process through to their places from the back of the church, and as they got closer to me, I realised with growing alarm that two of the lead celebrants were walking down the same row that I was sitting on. Was I supposed to move out of their way, or stay there, or acknowledge them or ignore them? I decided to ignore them, and stood there like a lemon while the two men in pointy hats took up position next to me behind the choir. They didn’t seem to be put out at my presence so I figured that maybe I was okay. Not so much.

It wasn’t that anything bad happened; it’s just that in much the same way as you wouldn’t necessarily expect or want to be strapped in next to the pilot for the duration of a commercial flight from London to Paris, neither would you want to be sitting right next to the con-celebrant of a choral evensong service, between him and the congregation, in a large cathedral, when you are not that familiar with the order of service, and haven’t quite mastered the basics of when to stand up and sit down. That’s all I’m saying.

The following week I sat far enough back in the regular seats that the Deacon would not notice me before the service and invite me to “come on down”.

Anyway, enough of rambling anecdotes. I am out of practice at blogging and I’m pretty sure that I need an editor.

But let me close this post by wishing a very happy 50th birthday and a long life ahead to an old friend.