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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.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Christian Vision for Europe: learning from the past

As background for the EU referendum, I've been reading about the vision for the reconstruction of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
What's striking is the prominent role of Christian thinkers in the debate. On the European mainland, politicians like Robert Schuman laid out plans advocating a new order in which it would be impossible for European nations to engage in the destructive warfare that had had such a calamitous effect not only for Europe but the entire world. As a courageous fighter in the French resistance, he had seen this at first hand. What is less well-known nowadays is his deep religious faith, informed by his detailed knowledge of, among other Christian philosophers, St Thomas Aquinas. It was Catholic social teaching that motivated his vision for a more peaceable Europe, particularly its emphasis on the quest for justice and the common good. In this he was not alone.
The Schuman Declaration was published on 9 May 1950, less than a month after I was born. (That date is now kept as Europe Day, and I hope we shall see the EU flag flying on public buildings then.) The plan advocated as a starting point a single economic market that would bring together Europe's vast coal and steel industries. Common economic goals, would, he believed, would not only greatly reduce the risks of conflict but would lead to other shared endeavours that would transform the economic, social and political face of the continent not least in reconciling its nations and healing centuries-old divisions.

Schumann believed that individual nation states were not best placed to judge what was in the interests of the common good. A nation's priorities would inevitably always be the welfare of its own citizens. There is nothing wrong with self-interest if it is enlightened: Aquinas followed Augustine in discussing very carefully what it meant to command, as Judaism and Christianity do, that we should love our neighbours "as ourselves". But Schuman, along with other Christian democrats, believed that a much larger vision of life together was needed for the safety and flourishing of the continent. Only a supra-national enterprise in which the reconciled peoples of Europe collaborated closely could ever deliver this.

UK church leaders and politicians watched these developments closely. Prominent among the Church of England bishops was George Bell who welcomed Schuman's visionary plan. In a debate in the House of Lords, Bell expressed the hope that Britain would bring to the new Europe the distinctive gifts it had to offer: its long experience of stable democratic government, its global "reach" as a people whose empire extended across the world, and its warm friendship with the United States. Andrew Chandler quotes him in his new biography of Bell: The preservation of national sovereignty as its own end was, he said, "not itself a Christian principle. The partial fusion of sovereignty is in accordance with Christian principles if it is in pursuit of noble ends and justice and peace".  

Those words seem strikingly modern. The idea of "pooled sovereignty" as a way of exercising a nation's power and influence has been much discussed during the EU campaign. During the recent visit of US President Barack Obama we have heard a great deal about Anglo-American friendship, prized by almost everyone on both sides of the debate. But what motivated Bell and those who thought like him was a Christian vision of society, a dream inspired by the gospel for the future of the human race. They were not simply concerned with pragmatic politics.

I am sure he owed this to his close contacts with prophetic German Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller during the terrible years of Nazi rule. He saw a national church fatally embroiled in national self-interest, blindly colluding with tyranny and persecution. What he learned from Bonheoffer and Niemöller was that Christianity is bigger than any nation state. If it is to be true to its Lord, its scope must never be less than humanity itself, for it was the world to which, out of love, God sent his Son. And therefore (he said, aware that he was speaking as a bishop of the Church "of England") the very idea of a "national" church was in an important theological way, a contradiction. Unless a national church saw itself as a vital member of the world church, and led its people to think of their nationality as subsumed under their Christian and human identity, it would deny the universality of the gospel.

We need an historical perspective if we are to debate our EU membership intelligently. As has famously been said, if we ignore the lessons of the past we shall find ourselves committing them all over again. It's especially important that we Christians who engage in the debate understand where we have come from. I'm not sure that the churches are saying nearly enough about the clear Christian motivation of the EU's founding fathers. Indeed, I'm not sure that the churches are saying nearly enough about this entire debate. And that would have greatly puzzled the church leaders of the 1940s and 1950s.
History, like patriotism, is not enough. We need to frame the debate in contemporary terms, not those of a past age. The dilemmas that face the European Union today are different from those of half a century ago, and vastly more complex. But that's why those who speak for religious faith should be more vocal, not less. It's true that bishops and church leaders are not experts in global politics, the economy, trade, security, governance and many of the other matters that are defining the debate. But that was true in 1950 too. Religion should speak about what it knows, and tread tentatively where it lacks technical knowledge. But Christianity knows a great deal about aspiring to a nobler vision of human community, about social justice, solidarity with the poor and needy, seeking the common good, and above all, about being a society that transcends all human limitations and frontiers. It knows about those things because it has lived them for two thousand years.
This is why the church today must heed the lessons of the past, and summon up the courage not only to think itself into a universal frame of mind but to speak about it. Perhaps the church needs to reboot its imagination so that like those visionary Christian prophets of the postwar era, it speaks compellingly once again into the politics of the day in pursuit of a reconciled human family. Its distinctive contribution to the EU referendum could be to remind us of the universal Christian principles that lay behind the founding of the European project. Their propounders, the parents of the European Union, are no longer with us. But "they being dead, yet speak".


  1. Michael, I know you are a positively inspirational speaker. This is stirring stuff. You're completely right about trying to be friends and cooperate across national boundaries. But you yourself mention the USA. No chance of being in one super state with them, and yet, at present at least, both sides want to be "best friends". And, I am afraid, there is no guarantee that being in treaty or trade or any other agreements with Europe, or for the matter of that, anyone else, will actually make us all play nicely. Especially a few years down the line, when everyone will have forgotten why they agreed to it, and a new government is in place is all the countries involved. You're right. But is the United States of Europe the only/best way to achieve it? Please persuade me.

  2. There was a group of high minded intellectual UK based Roman Catholics (many Labour leaning) who spent much time in the 1930s - 50s debating and promoting the idea of a united Europe. Key figures were the historian Christopher Dawson, George Catlin (Shirley Williams' dad) and Michael Fogarty. I wrote about these a long time ago in my PhD Thesis 'Roman Catholics, Christian Democracy and the British Labour Movement, 1910-1960' University of Manchester, 1992. I also covered some of the ground in a couple of conference papers published as book chapters 'Discrediting the 'Catholic State': British Catholics and the Fall of France' in Frank Tallett and Nicholas Atkin 'Catholicism in Britain and France Since 1789' (Hambledon Press, 1996) and, probably more pertinently 'The British experience: Christian Democrats without a party' in David Hanley 'Christian Democracy in Europe: A Comparative Perspective' (Pinter Publishers, 1994). It's a long time since I've looked at anything I wrote back then so I can't vouch for the quality! These days I am just the mother of three teens, the youngest of which attends the school in Stratford that your daughter works at.

    Best wishes,

    Joan Keating

  3. Michael, I agree with all you say. However, are you (like me) at risk of taking a slightly romantic libral view of the EU. Giles Fraser has recently been talking about the TTIP and how a vote to be outside of the EU would spare us from this scary and destructive deal. He also writes very well in the Guardian ( link is - http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/apr/21/why-our-landed-gentry-are-so-desperate-to-stay-in-the-eu) - I, and I am sure others, would value your thoughts on this, something more than than the stump we hear from the Remain camp that it is better to be in and change things from the inside....thoughts!?Thanks : )