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Brexit apocalypse and the Bishop’s nightmare

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Adrian Hilton – political theologian, educationalist and commentator

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.

QuestionThe 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.

Brexit - imageI 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.

GreeceBishops 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”.



13 Responses on “Brexit apocalypse and the Bishop’s nightmare

  1. Angusian says:

    Why is episcopal partisanship any different from the position taken by a politician; the referendum will dictate future policies of nations, not parties but Cameron, Gove et al have the freedom to use their ‘power’ and influence – even if the personalities involved polarize the electorate !

  2. Richard Murray says:

    Whilst you are prepared to accept Christian involvement in promoting peace and “Christian principles such as subsidiarity and solidarity” why not other “gospel truth” issues such as justice, human rights etc? You seem to be saying that the Church should not meddle in the secular affairs of society. In the confused politics of today, why should the Church not play its part in maintaining the European vision, so that everyone in Europe and beyond gets to know and to trust each other? The source and proper enjoyment of the rich blessings of life are matters which are clearly understood by the Church and can only be sustained in an ordered society. So the emphasis should be on working to maintain the EU, reorder it as needs must, but not to slip away into isolation.

  3. ” anti-democratic United States of Europe which is creeping, ratchet-like, toward continent-wide assimilation and uniformity”

    A sweeping, emotive, assertion based on what evidence?

  4. James says:

    Bishops have at least nominal care of all Christians in their dioceses

    Not in Winchester they don’t.

  5. Peter Debney says:

    It does seem curious that Adrian Hilton says that Bishops should remain neutral on the Brexit question and complains about them commenting on the downside, while at the same time being totally partisan on the question himself.

    This article would have been so much better if the author had listened to his own advice: concentrating on the question of whether Bishops should remain neutral and leaving the pro/anti-Brexit arguments for another place.

  6. Jane Evans says:

    Anthony Hilton’s inflammatory and unsubstantiated remarks about the EU significantly detract from his main message. Yes, the Bishops and the Cof E should remain neutral on the question of the referendum, yes the Bishops should speak out on Gospel issues, including peace and justice, and no, Hilton’s own opinions on the EU issue have nothing to do with that.

  7. Mark says:

    I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘subordinate clergy’… As a parish priest I certainly don’t consider myself, and am not treated as, subordinate.

    I value the bishops’ reflections, based as they are on far broader experience (political, international, theological and beyond) than my own; and I am grateful when they bring this experience to bear on any matter of importance. But that doesn’t imply that I feel bound to agree with them: that is not the nature of the Church of England.

    The logical conclusion of Adrian’s argument would seem to be that nobody of influence should express an opinion, and that the rest of us should be left to make up our minds free of the influence of people who might actually have something to contribute to the debate.

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  10. Kim Angel says:

    For the love of God why do you cry down any one that stands against the EU it’s is biased against the rest of the world it is undemocratic by its very nature , its one purpose is to destroy individual freedom , those that came to live here in the UK fleeing from oppression are in fear of the open borders as what the ran from is now abel to walk on in & they live in fear of that , for there safety and our freedom to practice our Christeanity in peace in the UK we need to vote out why are the churches so biased against a real fear that was written in our bible , we are told to seek guidance within its pages yet most egnore this , we have been world leaders in all areas of the U.K. Before the curuption of the EU just look at history we had it all first, women’s rights to vote came before the EU was even thought of , why down cry the ability of this once Great nation , our men & women sacrificed so much for our freedom for self rule & for what purpose ! Have they given so much for nothing ,we are as christens being for the most part a peaceful people & very giving and excepting of others way of life , but that can not be said of a certain religion that is rising up against every free thinking individual ,why is that truth being ignored ! I just don’t understand why we can’t discuss the real threat here now in the UK , I love Europe but dislike the EU there is a difference so voting out for my freedom of speech & for the freedom in my own country to praise my Lords name .

  11. Mike Ryan says:

    Hilary Clinton is as about pro-abortion as you can get. Does it not strike the Bishop of Guildford that a Hilary Clinton presidency would be a nightmare or is he quite content with that outcome?

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