It sounds like a grand rhetorical gesture to ask this kind of question. What prompts it is a recent piece by Angela Tilby on the EU referendum in the Church Times. She asks whether the UK has a 'vocation' to belong to the EU, given its historic religious, cultural and political roots in continental Europe.
I like the idea that peoples and nations can have a vocation. I imagine that this is a way of saying two things. The first is that the existence of nations and peoples is not a matter of chance but is somehow meant. A theologian will want to say that it belongs to the process of creation, and as the Abrahamic faiths present it, this is not random but intentional. In its mythic account of human origins, the Book of Genesis traces the existence of the known world's peoples back to the beginnings of humanity itself. I read this as saying that the concepts of order and pattern that 'creation' represents are continued into history as the human family organises itself into differently shaped communities in particular places.
So if peoples and nations exist not through accident but artistry, then purpose and destiny become interesting dimensions to ponder. They aren't different in principle from questions of personal destiny ('why am I here?') and collective destiny ('why are we all here?' 'What is the human race for?'). Some may say that these questions are ultimately unanswerable because they are not well formed in the fist place. Nevertheless, we find ourselves asking them which perhaps says something about their validity. So if theology can pose these other questions about humanity as a whole and myself as part of it, I think we can ask the same question of a nation or a people.
There are risks. Here in Britain, our forebears talked about the colonisation and empire as 'civilising' or 'Christianising' the world. Triumphalist lyrics like Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are poetic ways of celebrating (or misunderstanding) the idea of a national vocation. The emergence of nation states in post medieval Europe was bound to give rise to this kind of sentiment: it was natural for each nation to give a reason for its very existence by talking or singing it up. National anthems across the world express vocational ideals and aspirations (Britain's is an interesting exception to this rule because it is not really about nationhood, rather its focus is the person of the Sovereign).
But I think we can still talk more modestly about a 'national vocation'. Maybe that's a way of talking about a nation's soul. For instance, when we allude to England as the 'mother of parliaments' we mean that our democratic constitution and parliamentary processes model a politics that can be, and has been, offered as a gift for others to emulate and adapt according to their own vocation and way of being. This 800th anniversary year has linked our politics and judicial system to the first sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. I was struck at Runnymede by how much of the discourse around the Great Charter was couched in terms of England's 'gift to the world', especially among American commentators.
The EU referendum is making us ask questions about Britain and our place in Europe. But much of the campaigning talk both for and against membership goes beyond the pragmatic implications of staying in or leaving. There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vocational subtext about what the United Kingdom really is in itself, what it means to be true to its historic identity, and how it can best realise its potential. But we can't explore those questions without also asking what the European Union is for, how its member states contribute to the achieving of its purpose, and whether we want to be part of its vocation or not. Is it primarily about economic co-operation and the single market? Or is it about politics, peace-keeping and policy-making across nations?
The EU's treaties and founding documents set out its core values. They are: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. They speak of the aspiration to be 'an ever growing union of peoples'. They celebrate the (relative) freedom from conflict of this historically war-torn continent since the middle of the twentieth century. They celebrate European heritage and culture as a gift to the world. (I wish they mentioned religion too, because of the absolutely central role Christianity, Judaism and Islam have played in the shaping of the continent since Roman times. I may try and say something about this in relation to the 'soul' of Europe one day.)
So what is the vocation of Europe? Here's my suggestion. It's to model how independent nations can freely and democratically associate in a union that puts the common good before narrow self-interest, and offers to the world both a model of collaboration and common purpose, and contributes to the global quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. This is what I see our common European home standing for. As I argued in my last blog, Britain has everything to give to this noble task, all that makes it such a good place to live in, all that makes us love it. This is why for many partner nations, a European Union without Britain is unthinkable.
So I'm baffled by the hostility to the EU that I see all around, not just in this country but across the continent. Call me naïve (I'm sure many will) but the European project, this experiment that has done so much for our continent, is where I see national and global vocations begin to converge, and that has to point to a kinder, better, more peaceable and more just world. It's not a case of sacrificing our precious national identity. Rather, it's precisely by cherishing it that we, with every other EU nation, bring our distinctive gifts to the fashioning of a whole that is greater (and yes, more glorious) than the sum of its parts.
It's a call for us to be grateful for what we prize, and share it generously. It's also a call for us to be open to receive what other nations have to give. This mutuality is what true God-given community is all about. It's what 'family' means. Why would the UK not want to be part of this humane and visionary enterprise?