In characteristic fashion Adrian Hilton has tackled the role of bishops in the current EU Referendum debate. He challenges the Bishop of Guildford – and, by implication, the rest of us – to keep quiet about our views on remaining or leaving the Union. The challenge is a fair one.
As Adrian says, the bishops have a responsibility to minister to people on both sides of the debate. Indeed, one of the points I feel acutely as a bishop – and one voiced by a number of colleagues – is the need to pay attention to what happens when the referendum is history and a nation bitterly divided by the outcome has to continue to forge a future when this outcome is for half of them a “nightmare”. The ministry of reconciliation cannot easily be dropped.
However, I think there are a few observations here that might merit consideration in the light of Adrian’s charge.
First, the bishops have not claimed any position of “neutrality”. Indeed, to do so would be absurd. Given that everyone has a world view and a perspective on matters of personal and collective concern, there can be no position of neutrality. Call me a pedant, but stating that the Church will not push a particular position – for some a questionable stance – is not the same as saying that bishops have no position.
Secondly, the decision not to push a particular line collectively does not and must not inhibit bishops from engaging in the debate. Faith is not a private matter that can be kept in a box reserved for private piety. The leadership of bishops requires them to apply their theological acumen to the pressing issues of the day. Articulating what is then seen through this lens should be seen as a contribution to debate and not necessarily the defined position or conclusion of a closed mind.
Thirdly, we should expect that the bishops, individually at least, should be capable of contributing intelligently to a debate in such a way as to enable their own thinking to develop or even change. Challenging assertions or identifying questions to be asked of either camp is, surely, a responsible thing for a leader and interpreter to do. I adopt what I can only call a “narrative” approach to this debate: by engaging in it I allow my own views to be tested and challenged in a way that might not be comfortable. But, in the end, I will have to take a view and put my cross on the paper – and I want to do that having thought and debated thoroughly. The alternative to a narrative (or iterative) process is that everyone adopts their position and defends it against all argument or challenge.
Fourthly, it is entirely reasonable for a bishop to ask questions about the grounds for assertions that are not backed up by argument. For example, that staying in the EU will prevent a “nightmare”, or that leaving will lead us into a terrorism-free nirvana of economic flourishing. If staying in means that we still have to shape the EU along with others, then leaving means that we will have to engage with “partners” who might choose not to give us what we want. The point is that it takes two to partner, and we simply do not know what can be guaranteed. To point this out is not to be partisan, but to ask a pertinent question – whatever conclusion people ultimately draw.
‘Project Fear’ is not the preserve of one side. There has to be a better way to debate.
About the author
Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds (for the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales). He was previously Bishop of Bradford (2011-14), and before that was Bishop of Croydon. He read German and French at Bradford University and, before ordination, worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ. Nick Baines became a member of the House of Lords in 2014. He has represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at international faith conferences and is the English Co-chair of the Meissen Commission which develops relationships between the Church of England and the Protestant Church in Germany.