I have launched a Twitter feed called "Christians for the European Union", @Xians4EU. I'd like to tell you why.
If you read this blog regularly, or its Decanal Woolgathering predecessor, you'll know that I am a European at heart. The heart comes into things as well as the head. I owe a lot of this to my upbringing. My mother is a Jewish refugee who was fortunate enough to flee Nazi Germany and make a new life here in Britain. After the war she married an Englishman whose cultural origins were Anglican. When I was little we spoke both German and English at home. (I was even said to have a discernible Westphalian accent. If only I were as fluent today.)
So you'll see why I have always sensed in myself a 'double belonging'. I am unambiguously British, yet also feel firmly anchored to continental Europe. I am an Anglican priest yet am always aware of my Jewish roots. I love the language, life, landscapes and culture of Britain, especially of the part of England where I have lived and worked for many years. But I love just as much being on the European mainland and enjoying all that belongs to it. On my Twitter account I describe myself as 'A European at home in North East England'. I chose those words carefully to try to encapsulate this rich identity to which I owe so much.
The historic, spiritual and cultural links that tie our island into Europe are deeply important to me. Living as I now do in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, I am surrounded by memories of a rich past in which Britannia belonged to a then worldwide association of peoples bound together by the Pax Romana. Up the hillside as I write this I can see the trees surrounding the little 12th century church of St Cuthbert, a reminder of how medieval Europe was held together by a spiritual and humane vision of life together that was large enough to embrace Jews, Christians and Moslems. At my desk I am surrounded by books from many different European lands that reflect the Enlightenment's commitment to curiosity, study and learning.
Yes, those past eras were also beset by conflict. The succeeding centuries have seen Europe continue to be torn apart by the armies of its warring peoples. In the mere lifespan of my grandparents, these divisions have been catastrophic as they twice erupted into global conflict. And we cannot say that this European addiction to bloodshed came to an end after World War 2 as Bosnia and the Ukraine demonstrate only too painfully. But at least we have seen Europe take real strides in healing many of these old wounds. The noble post war vision of a family of nations that would work together for their mutual flourishing played a large part in this.
Which brings us to the European Union as we now know it. There is a lot wrong with the EU, as Brexit enthusiasts never tire of pointing out. I'm not going to deny that better democratic participation and greater transparency are needed in the way it conducts its business. (Though by the way, there's quite a lot wrong with the Union we call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland come to that, as the widening cracks in our society, the dismantling of public services and the failure of equitable processes for caring for the most needy in our society show only too clearly.) Yes, the EU has not distinguished itself by its response to the migration crisis, nor the Bosnian and Ukrainian crises before it. It's easy to point to its failures.
However, in the debate leading up to the EU referendum which may now be only be a few months away, it's vitally important that we focus on the big themes that undergird the vision and the idea of a European Union. We should celebrate its real achievements since the mid twentieth century, just as at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, we needed to talk up the success story that is the United Kingdom.
So we need to keep the EU's founding vision alive, and this is what I am missing in almost all the pronouncements made by advocates on both sides of this argument. It's a pity that the rhetoric of both 'inners' and 'outers' is so fixated on what's best for Britain financially, and what will happen to the UK's industry, employment and economic position. I'm not saying that these things don't matter hugely. But we need to enlarge the debate by reminding one another not only what constitutes the geo-political entity called 'Europe' but, much more important, what makes us Europeans. And this is to do with the politics of an entire continent, with peace-making and keeping, social justice, human rights, the free movement of peoples, the welfare of working people, our concern for the environment and our care for the poor and needy. And much else.
A recent report** by the Christian theological think-tank Theos has highlighted the part Christianity played in laying the foundations of contemporary Europe. It is well worth reading. Entitled A Soul for the Union, it emphasises that our continent must not forget its religious and cultural roots. The essay points out how deeply indebted the EU's founding vision was to Catholic social theology. Drawing on this tradition, it underlines the importance of morality, social and political ethics, all the human, cultural and spiritual dimensions it calls the 'soul' of Europe. To quote Bonhoeffer (my insight, not the report's), the EU is fundamentally about 'life together'. For living in community is a foundational aspect of discipleship.
And this is why I've launched @Xians4EU. It's decidedly not about harking back nostalgically to a now lost 'Christendom'. We should never try to recreate the past: if we do, we shall only reproduce its mistakes on an even more grandiose scale. Modern Europe is a secular alliance of diverse peoples living in a world that is utterly different from previous ages. We need to affirm and celebrate this religious and cultural diversity that characterises the twenty first century. But in Europe, we can see how its very diversity draws on a long history already embraced in late antiquity, the middle ages and the Renaissance and Reformation eras as is clear from its vast debt to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The influences of good religion pervade its culture and its institutions. As do the insights that flowed into Europe thanks to the Enlightenment, not least its intellectual curiosity and its emphasis on toleration (a movement that Christianity, its parent faith, should embrace positively rather than shun - but that's another story).
I admit that I was inspired (some might say goaded) into setting up @Xians4EU by coming across a similar Twitter feed called @Xtians4Britain. It is a campaigning Christian site that is energetically advocating Brexit. It has a significant following with distinguished patrons. I asked myself why the explicitly Christian voice should be limited to EU unbelievers, for I've long believed that a convincing case for the EU and Britain's active participation in it can be made from Christian principles. Indeed, more than that: I believe that the Christian emphases we find in, say, the Sermon on the Mount point us in the direction of growing together as human societies. I'm thinking of values like mutuality, participation, citizenship, collaboration, service, social justice, compassion, reconciliation, and most of all, turning away from self-concern and self-sufficiency towards a more generous and inclusive vision of being human. To go back to Bonhoeffer, there is a 'cost of discipleship': membership of every community worth joining has its demands as well as its rewards. It's my belief as a Christian that the EU is just such a community.
To envision a community of peoples committed to these values is, I think, the ultimately persuasive argument for the EU. I'm not utopian about this. It's a project whose success is as yet very partial. Much remains untried and untested; there is much that is broken and in need of mending. Self-interest keeps breaking in and compromising what we aspire to. (I'm very much afraid that this self-serving propensity is precisely what is driving the UK's agenda in renegotiating its membership of the EU: not so much what is good for all our peoples, but only what Britain itself can get out of it.) But that shouldn't excuse us from trying to create a living social and political reality that models the best of which we are capable. Indeed, the EU is only one of a number of networks and associations that we should be aiming to build up for the sake of the human race. I doubt if our world will survive many more generations unless it increasingly moves in this direction and we learn to live and work together in a far more intentional way.
And if nothing else, @Xians4EU can highlight the need to pray for our leaders and for ourselves during the run-up to the referendum. I hope it can help draw attention to the need to think Christianly about society as well as the church so that we keep the debate focused on what matters most, not just for the UK, not just for the EU, but for all humanity. In terms of the history we are making in the months to come, it's how we play out this drama on the world stage that will ultimately judge us. I want to be able to say, as a Christian, as a British citizen and as a convinced European, that I am proud of how my nation responded.
**The Theos report can be read online at http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2016/01/21/a-soul-for-the-union.
You can scroll down to my previous blogs on this site: The Churches and the EU Referendum, and What is the Vocation of Britain in Europe?
- 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.