In a recent interview, the Bishop of Bristol, Mike Hill, said the Church wouldn’t tell people which way to vote in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, but would instead encourage them to think wisely. This is a democratically responsible and thoughtful approach for a bishop to take on a contentious political issue.
In a recent tweet, the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, said that waking up on 24th June to find that the British people had voted ‘Leave’ would be one of his “nightmare scenarios” (the other being a Trump presidency). I won’t comment on the possibility of the presidential nightmare, or on the Bishop’s pointed juxtaposition of a Trump White House with EU secession (I have a word limit).
But, I have to wonder how responsible this tweet was, not least because the official position of the Church of England (and this blog) is one of neutrality, treading the good old Anglican via media for the preservation of unity and the common good of the whole. For a bishop to be so candid, not to say alarmist, about such a divisive political matter has raised a few eyebrows – at least both of mine.
The Bishop of Guildford isn’t alone, of course. I did ponder where to place the apostrophe in the title of this piece, but opted for the singular because only Guildford has referred to the “nightmare” of Brexit wailing and gnashing of teeth. But quite a few other bishops have made their pro-EU feelings quite plain: Madeleine Davies has the tally to date.
So we read that the Brexit “nightmare” would be “very sad” because it would mark a return to “competing nationalisms” and “very dangerous times”. The EU has been “integral in delivering seven decades of peace and economic security”.We must resist the “widespread rise of populism” because “we are European” and “have nothing to fear or to lose if we remain so”. The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, wants a ‘Third Way’, but that isn’t on the ballot paper. And the Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, aims directly for the Tories, but this isn’t a general election. As you see, it’s all impeccable political neutrality with rigorous episcopal impartiality.
The laity and other clergy will, of course, make up their own minds, but what manner of neutrality is it when CofE comms tells the media that the institution is neither for remaining nor leaving, while many in the House of Bishops preach the Gospel of Remain? Would a bishop ever tweet that his (or her) “nightmare” would be to wake up to a Corbyn premiership? What guilt does the prospect of voting for the Bishops’ (it probably is plural) Brexit “nightmare scenario” inculcate in the spiritually-discerning democratic intellect of the laity and subordinate clergy?
But in what sense would leaving the EU be a “nightmare”?
Some say we’d be poorer; others that the cost of holidays would rise; still others that our power stations would go dark and terrorism would increase. There is equal expert opinion to the contrary in every case, and it’s hardly four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse stuff, is it? The matter of whether our national destiny is to be bound in perpetuity to an anti-democratic United States of Europe which is creeping, ratchet-like, toward continent-wide assimilation and uniformity cannot simply be distilled to short-term economic interests or security scaremongering.
I can understand Bishop Andrew’s desire to sustain a political union which is ostensibly based on sound Christian principles such as subsidiarity and solidarity. But, as Philip Booth has shown, the EU is antithetical to the very concept of localism, notwithstanding the letter of Maastricht. And I feel sure that the Greeks, Spanish, Italians and Portuguese might balk at assertions that the EU project is any longer concerned with fraternal solidarity, mutuality and social harmony.
This isn’t an organic social contract for diversity, liberty and limited state power, but a fabricated mechanism for the enforcement of national assimilation. When you’re locked – seemingly irrevocably – into a model of “economic governance” which hinders growth, destroys jobs, increases poverty, and leads mothers to abandon their children on the streets and fathers to commit suicide, I have to put to Bishop Andrew that his Brexit “nightmare scenario” would be welcomed by millions of Greeks as a dream of Grexit bliss.
The euro was supposed to be the zenith of the single market, heralding fiscal union and an age of peace and prosperity. Instead, it has caused untold misery, hardship and ruin throughout southern Europe, while the north – and especially Germany – has benefited from the reactive weakness of a currency which has boosted exports, growth and employment. The German dream has become the Greek nightmare. When you can’t raise interest rates or devalue your currency, you’re left with raising taxes. When the people are already oppressed, and democracy denied, don’t be surprised if protest marches descend into civil strife. There’s your real nightmare.
Bishops have at least nominal care of all Christians in their dioceses, and certainly of all those who are practising Anglicans. These will include people who do not share their view on Brexit (or even Trump). Bishops are figures of considerable authority and spiritual influence. It is, I say respectfully, inappropriate for one in their position to proclaim a view on any matter of political controversy unless it relates directly to gospel truth, and even then only with extreme care and restraint. The stuff of ‘nightmares’ is for the ecclesiastical tabloids.
I doubt that the Bishop of Guildford was seeking to influence the votes of those in respect of whom he is ‘overseer’ (and perhaps even beyond), but you can see how it might be interpreted as doing so. Private political views are inevitable, but public neutrality on them is more likely to foster unity.
About the author
Adrian Hilton is a political theologian, educationalist and commentator on politics, religion, culture and the arts. He is a former parliamentary candidate and policy adviser to ministers and shadow ministers. He is founder and editor of the award-winning eponymous blog ‘Archbishop Cranmer’, and has also written for ConservativeHome, The Spectator, Guardian and Daily Mail. He lectures in the UK and the US on politics and philosophy, and holds a Guinness World Record. Most recently, he founded ‘Christians For Britain’ which he co-chairs with the Rev’d Giles Fraser – “praying for EU sense.. preparing to leave”.