I wasn't (for once) thinking about the European Union that day. But afterwards, I thought about what the preacher had said in his fine homily. He spoke about the marriage vow, and how a few words said in public change everything. I've quoted the philosopher J. L. Austin before in a blog. He wrote a famous book called How To Do Things With Words. He took the marriage vow as an example of a "performative utterance", words that change things, make a significant difference. When the bridal couple process out of church at the end of the marriage ceremony, they have taken on a different status from what they had when they came in. They now have new privileges, duties, responsibilities. It's their promises that effected that change.
What's that got to do with the EU referendum?
Simply this, that as members of the European Union, we have signed treaties that bind us to this family of peoples. We have given undertakings and made promises to our fellow EU nations. Like marriage, a treaty is a kind of covenant. It commits us to fidelity, to being true to our word. We British take pride in behaving honourably and being trustworthy. It isn't only Englishmen (and women) whose word is their bond. I'd like to think that our neighbours in Europe thought they could safely trust us to honour our undertakings. I'd like to imagine that to them, whatever shortcomings the British may exhibit, unreliability and bad faith were not among them.
Thanks to the referendum, we are now considering walking away from commitments we have freely entered into. I find this deeply disappointing. It's not that any treaty is irrevocable, or that situations may not change so drastically that old undertakings need renegotiating. But to me, the very possibility of Brexit feels like the threat of a divorce. It would be the un-saying of promises that were made in good faith, in an environment of trust that pledged our nations to work together for the common good and our mutual flourishing. It would be the unraveling of the bonds of friendship and loyalty that held our peoples together. It would be, I think, to break our word which our neighbours had come to trust, and on which they thought they could rely.
Am I making too much about "honour"? Christian wisdom would say not. In the Bible, the vow or promise is sacred, born witness to not only by human beings but by God himself. Covenant-breaking is one of the worst of sins you could commit: maybe this lies behind the gospels' condemnation of Judas for betraying - handing over - Jesus to be crucified. "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no" he teaches: "anything more than this comes from evil". Theologically, pledging our word is to imitate the God who in Jesus, pledges his living Word to humanity and in him utters his final Yes to the world he loves. Honour is a central idea in all religious faiths. A word once given is solemn and binding.
Like any marriage, our relationship with the EU has had its ups and downs. It has been tested beyond what was originally anticipated. When a marriage is under pressure, it's tempting for one or both partners to walk away. Many do. But marital therapists tell us that to begin with at least, staying in the relationship and facing its difficulties openly and honestly in the hope of achieving a better life together is better than the easy option of escaping. It's not a perfect analogy, but the point is that our relationship with Europe is not an abstract connection with some faceless entity, "the EU", that we're talking about. It's a "marriage" to twenty seven other nations. It is they we would be disappointing and letting down, people to whom we have obligations of neighbourliness and friendship, particularly the most needy among them.
There isn't anything about this in the Government leaflet on the referendum that will drop on to our doormats in a few days' time. That focuses mainly on whether we are better off in or out, with a postscript on how the EU can achieve things (such as security and climate change) that no nation can do on its own. I don't have any quarrel with its contents. But it doesn't go far enough, doesn't probe the very reasons we belong to the European Union at all, and doesn't ask us whether we think it matters to honour our treaty commitments or not.
But surely it does matter that we commit to our undertakings and keep our promises. In one of the Psalms (15), the virtuous man or woman is someone who, having made a promise to a neighbour, does not go back on that word, even though it was troublesome and inconvenient. As individuals we want to be trustworthy and thought of us reliable. Fidelity is a value almost everyone shares. So we ought to uphold it as a nation too. And not turn our backs on the very many people of other European nations who are begging us not to walk away.