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.


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Rowan Williams: Thinking Naively, Rigidly And Uncreatively About Europe

Rowan Williams - Archbishop of Canterbury - EU Referendum - European Union - Brexit

Et tu, Archiepiscopus?

Another day brings more disingenuous, pseudo-Christian piffle over at Reimagining Europe, this time from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams (and his ghost/speechwriter Philip Waters).

Waters/Williams write, in a transcribed lecture humorously entitled “Thinking Creatively About Europe”:

Europe also has its Muslim and Jewish legacies. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are a family quarrel rather than a clash of civilisations. We need to remember that Medieval Catholic theology was crucially informed by influx from the Muslim and Jewish peripheries.

The mix of legacies means that Europe has had a history of at best conversation and at worst confrontation about authority: who should we listen to, who should we obey? In debate over the rights of state and church the insight persists that there are two schemes of reference, the political and the spiritual: they overlap but they are not the same. It is not necessary to go into detail about the differences between Eastern and Western Europe, or between Catholic and Protestant: the  above generalisations hold equally for all of them. To take one example, John Calvin’s ideas on the  relationship between realms of power are more like those of Thomas Aquinas than they are like those of Martin Luther.

One of the problems we face today is the idea of the clash of civilisations, and the suggestion that one of those civilisations is Western democracy. This idea forgets the ineractions throughout history which have created that very Western democracy. Without an understanding of history, the idea of the superiority of Western democracy seems to be self-evident.

‘Over There’ dwell peoples who do not know the self-evident benefits of democracy; and the reason usually given is that they are religious. One of the effects of modernity is strangely enough to drive people to radicalism. ISIS is an example of how the introduction of Western values in the form of confrontation leads to simplification of a heritage, in this case Islamic. There is no place for approaching any modern problems from a standpoint of triumphalism. What we can say is that a series of providential insights have been given within Europe which are to be shared with other parts of the world.

Wait for it…

All this is relevant for a consideration of Britain and Europe. There is no way we can talk about British values which are opposed to European or indeed wider values. My fear is that if Britain steps back from Europe it will be stepping back from its own heritage. In Britain we have not done too badly in sharing with and learning from others. In talking in isolationist terms we run the risk of nailing our colours to a myth.

In other words: religion, religion, religion, religion…political union!, with absolutely no attempt to draw any link of necessity between the two.

Whoever said anything about “step[ping] back from Europe”, as Williams disingenuously attempts to characterise the anti-EU stance? On the contrary, Brexit is an opportunity for Britain to re-engage with a world which has moved on since the post-war days of giant regional blocs facing off against one another, as any thinking Brexiteer will tell you. And yet the former Archbishop of Canterbury seems intent on defeating a straw man argument, that of the stereotypical isolationist little Englander who wants to pull up the drawbridge, cease all cooperation with our neighbours and turn the clock back to 1955.

This says a lot about Rowan Williams, but nothing good. It shows that on this most existential of questions he is fundamentally intellectually uncurious. Rather than seeking to understand why so many of his countrymen want to leave a dysfunctional and failing political union, he retreats into the comfort zone occupied by so many of his brethren in the centre-left, middle class clerisy, in which pro-EU types are enlightened and progressive while eurosceptics are somehow backward and reactionary.

We see it again when Williams claims that “we have not done too badly in sharing with and learning from others”. Well, who in blazes ever suggested otherwise? Our quarrel with the European Union is not that it encourages sharing and learning. Our quarrel is that the EU is a One Size Doesn’t Fit All embryonic supra-national government of Europe, unreplicated in any other corner of the globe, which seeks to gradually usurp the traditional powers and competencies of its member states in order to form an ever-closer union whose ultimate destination can only be a United States of Europe.

I don’t like to speak of a former Archbishop of Canterbury in uncharitable terms, but at this point it is genuinely difficult to tell whether he is being ignorant or deliberately deceptive – whether he genuinely doesn’t understand that the EU is not just about friendship and biscuits and apple pie, or whether he knows full well but is pretending that the EU is just “sharing and learning” in order to hoodwink others.

It is particularly concerning that Rowan Williams – an accomplished man with a fine mind – succumbs to the same woolly misconception as many of his peers. The misconception is not only that the explicitly political, integrationist construct known as the EU is a humble and unambitious organisation set up merely to foster “sharing and learning”, but that sharing, learning and close neighbourly cooperation are somehow impossible outside the auspices of an ever-tightening political union. Never mind that countries outside of Europe cooperate closely on all manner of issues every single day without feeling the need to dissolve themselves into a single political entity – Rowan Williams, like so many of his peers, is absolutely determined to project his false, naive vision of the humble old EU onto an organisation with altogether more far-reaching ambitions.

Yet when it comes to the history and future trajectory of the EU, there is no excuse for ignorance, especially not from one as well-connected to the establishment as a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Assuming he is operating through ignorance rather than malevolence, Rowan Williams has still had every opportunity to learn and comprehend the history of the movement for political union in Europe which has led to the contemporary EU. Magdalene College Oxford, where Williams now serves as Master, probably has quite a decent library. He might consider checking out a few books on the subject if the facts still elude him.

With less than a month to go, it is truly concerning that so many prominent Christian leaders are openly agitating for a Remain vote in the EU referendum when there is yet to be produced a clear, intellectually grounded Christian case for Remain – in other words, anything based on something more than warm leftist feelings and fuzzy ecumenism.

With recent high-profile interventions on austerity and social policy, the church has a record of unapologetic political activism – rather too naive and left-wing for this blog’s taste, but generally coming from a place of good intentions. Even when it has been wrong, the church has been able to plausibly claim to have the best interests of the poor and the voiceless in mind. Not so now, not with the EU question.

By failing to take a stand against remote and unwanted supranational government, the bishops – whether they declare it openly or not – are coming down firmly on the side of Europe’s elites, and not the people. They are complicit in supporting the continued imposition, largely by stealth, of a 1950s model of unaccountable, supranational government leading inexorably to ever-closer political union – a model which has already brought untold economic suffering to southern Europe and a migration crisis across the entire continent, and which promises only further unrest as the decisions taken by unelected European leaders diverge ever more widely from the interests of ordinary people.

The pro-EU bishops are certainly entitled to their position. But it is a very strange choice, coming down so fervently against the side of democracy. And a choice which many of them may struggle to explain in the near future.


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How Not To Pick Your Successor

Great news for all those who tweet. The Daily Telegraph reports today that Twitter users are to be invited to help choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury:

Well, to clarify, it will not just be Twitter users. As the article states:

A spokesman for the Church of England said the invitation would be made through the church press but also through other media including the social networking site Twitter, where the CofE already posts news in nuggets of 140 characters or less. Tweeters and others will be asked to offer names and “views on the needs of the diocese of Canterbury and the wider community”.

I wonder if this is entirely wise.

Britain is known for not taking publicity stunts or requests for audience participation very seriously, as anyone from Vodafone ( to David Blaine ( can attest. In fact, such requests often degenerate into one-liner competitions, with users trying to out-humour one another in their facetious responses.

So if too much weight is assigned to the views of those who respond on Twitter, it is entirely possible that we will end up with Archbishop Billy Connolly or Pete Doherty. And maybe inadvertently canonise St. Amy Winehouse while we are at it.

On a more serious note though, I read this article and my first thought was how silly, for such a major world religion to effectively take nominations for the top job via Twitter. But then I read and recalled how the process works at the moment:

Having wrestled with the best way to choose a new leader, the Church of England has decided to use the social networking site Twitter. It will also seek the views of people of all faiths and none, from the Chief Rabbi to Professor Richard Dawkins.

For the first time in history, the long and usually private process will begin with a widespread public consultation, to be finished by the end of May.

The Crown Nominations Commission, which must present the Prime Minister with two possible successors to Dr Rowan Williams, will also ask for contributions from “senior figures in other faiths, the secular world and the life of the nation”.
[my emphasis in bold]

So yes. On reflection, compared to having the Prime Minister tossing a coin and choosing the next leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, asking for the opinions of a load of drunk Twitter users fresh back from the pub, people from rival faiths, an avowed atheist and Susan Boyle doesn’t sound like such a bad idea after all.

A democratic church, what a genuinely interesting concept. One that probably deserves a blog post all of its own.

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