About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Churches and the EU Referendum

So now we know what the Prime Minister wants from Europe. His letter to the European Council contains no great surprises. But it left me feeling despondent. Our continent is facing a huge crisis as thousands of migrants arrive helpless on our southern shores. There is no consensus about how best to respond to them. For one nation to thrust its wish list into the foreground at a time like this seems self-serving and not at all in the best tradition of British-ness. I'm sorry - and a little ashamed if I'm honest.

Let me come clean. I believe that our future as a nation has to lie in the European Union. I admit that my own personal history comes into it, and with it, a strong emotional pull towards 'the continent'. My mother's side of the family comes from Germany. Being Jewish, they suffered terribly in the Nazi holocaust. Some perished; others were fortunate enough to survive in hiding or flee to this country for safety. My mother was one of those. I've blogged about it before.

That's no argument of course. But personal identity comes into things. I had to fill in a questionnaire the other day to register with the GP in our new home. How did I describe myself, it asked? The only applicable box said 'White British'. No denying that it's what I am. So I ticked it. But it's not all I wanted to say about myself. So I added: '/European'. My Twitter profile says that I am 'a European at home in North East England.' That's closer to who I am. I belong to the North East. I belong to England. I belong to the United Kingdom. I belong to Europe. But even that isn't all. I belong to a particular family now living in a particular village. At the other end of the scale I belong to the entire world and to the family of humanity. I love all these circles of belonging and want to be loyal to them all. I want to be a citizen, and participate in the life, of each of them. Our many identities matter, from the least to the greatest.

You don't need me to rehearse the arguments for Britain's membership of the EU. When it comes to the economy, trade, politics, higher education, science, security, social care and culture, scores of people who know what is what are doing this expertly and persuasively. That's not to say that the EU is a perfect organisation. The PM is right about the needs for reform and reducing the burden of bureaucracy. Yet despite its shortcomings, the evidence is that our participation in the EU has benefitted us enormously. And, it's important to say, it has benefitted the EU too. No wonder the family of European nations, let alone America and China, view the possibility of Brexit with alarm. So should we.

Does the 'idea of Europe' have a theological and spiritual aspect? I believe it has. For one thing, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam and every other world faith, transcends the nation state. Religion says: our 'belonging' is vastly bigger than just our national identity. To think in purely national terms about humanity is severely to limit our vision. So communities of peoples like the EU point to a future that is collaborative, where acting together can effect positive change that puts a nation's self-interest in the larger context of the common good, as catholic social thought has made increasingly clear. The UK is itself evidence that as peoples we are always 'better together' than apart. To develop partnerships and synergies is, I think, a collective expression of the biblical principle that 'it is not good for man to be alone'.

In the intensively connected world of the 21st century, no nation state can function as if it were autonomous. National jurisdictions are subject to a vast number of external pressures, some benign, some not. Financial markets, transnational enterprise and digital information all flow freely around the globe: national boundaries just do not feature. Climate change, human trafficking and global terrorism pay no regard to them: addressing them will be done together or not at all. This is where Europe, along with other big alliances, helps to act as the glue to bind peoples together. We need more of this sense of being part of many families of nations, not less. To aspire to be 'an ever closer union of peoples' is a noble vision about the future of the human race itself. In it may lie the survival of humanity. For me, the burden or proof lies with those who would leave the EU, not those of us who want to stay in and deepen our ties with the continent of which we are historically a part.

I could say much more and perhaps will in future blogs about Europe. But even if you don't agree with my stance thus far, I hope you will be able to assent to what follows. The PM has said that the referendum in 2016 or 2017 could be the most important decision we British will ever make in our lifetimes. What should be the role of the churches in this?

First, the churches should help set the agenda for the debate. John F Kennedy might have said that the Christian way to frame the question is to ask not what our continent can do for us so much as what we can do for it. This altruistic note runs wholly counter to the way the leadership are trying to motivate us one way or the other. I find this deeply worrying. In the nation's life, just as in personal life, it's always true that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'. Social theology can help frame the debate so that the vision of the common good is not lost, especially when it comes to peace and justice in the world, our response to the voiceless and the poor, and how we address the degrading of the environment and its effect on our climate. What will merely sustain us in our lifestyles or confirm our island presumptions ought not to be at the top of the agenda. It's not for the churches to tell us how to vote. But by offering intelligent and wise commentary on the issues, and helping to interpret their theological and spiritual significance, they can help us vote in a better informed way. And, what matters most, to vote as citizens of God's kingdom and not merely citizens of this earthly kingdom of the UK.

Second, the churches should help set the tone of the debate. By that I mean that they should demonstrate the importance of courtesy, of rigorous intelligent argument, and most of all perhaps, of listening attentively to things we may passionately dissent from. All this goes into making sure that differences of view will be, in a favourite phrase of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'good disagreement'. The churches in Scotland played this role in the run-up to and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It was appreciated. But they were only able to do this because they had participated publicly in the debate themselves, and modelled how to do it in an adult and considered way. I hope that all the churches in Britain will emulate their example. 


  1. I cannot see anyone of the Bench of Bishops with the stature of Bishop George Bell, prior to his recent fall from Grace, who could lead the Church's pro European contribution in the run up to the EU Referendum? The present Prime Minister has declared that he will not lead his Political Party into another General Election which makes him something of a lame duck but also a loose canon and a bit of a danger to our continuing membership of the European Family of Nations. Like all Premiers he is concerned with his legacy, I hope and pray that what Edward Heath began (with the assistance of a former Hexham MP) will not conclude under the premiership of David Camerson.

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