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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday 27 June 2016

Brexit: how to go positively into exile

It's permitted to be sad this week, and more than a little angry. Post-referendum, we are still in the aftermath of a colossal political, cultural, social and - yes - spiritual convulsion. Raw emotions will subside in time and give way to a forensic analysis of where the UK now finds itself, not to mention the European Union and the rest of the world. But it's far too early to be cool-headed just yet, at least for me.

Yesterday my wife and I went to evening prayer in the tiny "old church" on the remote hillside above the village. It was a gloomy afternoon: a steady rain had set in, and the dark dripping avenue of yew trees we walked along seemed to echo my despondent spirits. The church has no electricity so we sang the hymns by candlelight. One of them was "God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform." Yes, I thought, that's not in dispute. But would I rise to the massive act of faith that could see how "behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face"? Time would tell.

We recited the Psalm set for the service, Psalm 60. O God, you have rejected us, broken our defences; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel. That feels right, I thought. It's not that a song of national defeat is transferable to post-Brexit Britain. I'm not making facile connections here. Rather, it's the mood that the Psalm caught so exactly: bewilderment, pain, despair, loss of bearings, how to understand the "mysterious way" in which God moves.

I thought of other laments in the Psalter. The most famous is Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept / when we remembered you, O Zion. It's one of the angriest Psalms in the book, fuelled by the violent emotions that follow any severe trauma or dislocation. The people are in exile, far away from their own country. They have lost their temple, their king and their land. They are at risk of losing their very identity, their soul. 

Their big question is, How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? How will they learn to recognise God both in the events that have brought them to this unwished-for exile, and in the place itself? What happens to faith and hope when they are driven out of a landscape that is familiar into a "strange land" where everything looks different and has to be negotiated afresh? 

This seemed to me to be a good metaphor of Brexit. There's a sense in which we are bound for an exile. Some welcome it, others don't. But it's a plain fact that it is going to be a strange land for all of us. Even Leavers have acknowledged that there is so much they "don't know". It's clear that there are few landmarks and no obvious plan, no historical precedents for our nation to follow. We are on our own. We can expect to be disorientated. We shall have to set our compass bearings as best we can. And given the hurt we have caused our friends and allies in the European Union, we have no right to expect that it will be an amicable departure, though we must hope and pray that it will be. 

The man who more than anyone else taught the faith community how to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land" was the prophet Jeremiah. He too was crushed by the way events had turned out for his people. He saw the disaster of exile coming and said so, much to the displeasure of his audience. If ever a prophet suffered in himself the conflicted experience of the people he was warning, it was Jeremiah. In the light of the past few days, I can understand that.

But he said something very important. It goes like this. There is no point in railing against it. Exile is going to be a fact. We are where we are. So understand that this will be your new reality for the foreseeable future.  It will be hard and painful at first. But if you can make the best of it, invest in it, trust that God has not after all abandoned you but has come with you into this far-away, hostile environment, you will find that life can begin again. In one of the bravest utterances in the Hebrew Bible he pleads: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29.7). It's an extraordinary - and wonderful - thing to say.

So here's my thinking as another week begins. We are at the start of a journey that will take us into exile - for leaving the EU is precisely what this is in a political and economic sense at the very least. Our place in the world is going to be very different from what it was. Brexiters (those at any rate who haven't had second thoughts about their vote) are telling us that it will be all right. Remainers are fearing the worst. Who knows what this strange land will be like? We are not going to find out this week, this month or any time soon. It's going to take years for the landscape so fractured by this earthquake and aftershocks still to come to rearrange itself and settle down. 

But we should not be swayed by either the optimists nor the pessimists. The best will probably not happen, but neither may all our worst fears be realised. And even if many of them are, and as a nation we come to regret our decision as foolish and mistaken, we mustn't be overwhelmed by negativity or despair. What matters is to maintain our faith in Providence as it works itself out in the present. We must do our equivalent of building and planting good things in the land of exile, as Jeremiah not only urged his hearers to do but did himself. Above all we must keep faith with our country and with Europe by saying our prayers. As I blogged on that bitter Friday morning, we must not lose heart.

Church leaders have called for reconciliation and healing after the vote. Our churches both in the UK and in continental Europe will have a part to play in this. But it can't be hurried if it's to be deep and lasting and reach into communities that have experienced deep and bitter division. Nor must we rush into it for the sake of quick closures or the ever-alluring demands of niceness. When there is a deep wound, healing takes time, and surgery may be needed first. But the last words from the cross can help draw us all into the everlasting movement of God's wise and loving purpose for the world. There have been times when we have cried with the psalmist and with Jesus himself, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? But might we begin to pray in a different, more trustful voice: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit? If we can, it could sow the seeds of hope for our future. 


  1. Hello Michael. It is rather like bereavement - shock, numbness, anger but then perhaps a new sense of purpose. I think the challenge is perhaps the greatest for Christians in the UK, like yourself. For those of us living in the EU it is perhaps slightly clearer. Bishop David Hamid has expressed his view helpfully in his 'Eurobishop' blog (http://eurobishop.blogspot.com/2016/06/we-remain-european-church-which-serves.html:
    'Now we will need to redouble our efforts to demonstrate our commitment to the common good, rejecting narrow nationalism and selfish individualism. Our alliances, covenants, commitments and unity agreements with sister European Churches will be all the more important now so that we can demonstrate our solidarity and communion as Christians together on the continent.' We've all got our work cut out. God bless you in yours.
    Liz Turek (Hayes)

  2. My husband has already overheard someone saying that £350m will be spent on the NHS next week, and a friend of his heard two people at the bus stop asking when could we start getting rid of the w***s. People are shouting out of cars at people who look foreign "get out, we won". It's looking grim at present. It may not turn out to be exile, but more like the country we thought we knew changing under our feet.

  3. I'm sorry, but I'm not yet ready to accept that yet. It might be denial, but I don't think your analogy with exile works. Exile was about the consequences of ignoring the word of the Lord and adopting a polity that excluded the poor and did the truth. Brexit is a decision to adopt a policy that punishes the poor, exiles the stranger, and is rooted in lies. So excuse me if I seek ways of resisting it, and recalling the people to wisdom.

  4. I happen to live in a borough, where 63% voted for Leave.

    We are trying to come to terms that such a high proportion voted in this way, as Leave Campaigners were not particularly active locally. The shock is being felt locally, as we have a high number of migrant families as well as second and third generation migrant families- to our surprise, it appears that many of those voted Leave, thereby seemingly wishing to deny new refugees and migrants access to the benefits and welcome offered to their parents and grand parents when they arrived?

    The reasons are complex, not really connected to the rhetoric of Farage and co,but more aligned as a protest vote against a Westminster elite, who appear to them to not have listened. I live in a Council ward that traditionally votes Labour, but the mixed messages that they received from Labour locally and nationally (half-hearted opposition) although our Labour MP was highly vocal in support of #Remain.

    As a parish, we perceive that some healing is needed locally and we will be seeking ways to rebuild trust with our Churches together network in our area and wider across the Deanery. We will travel in hope and prayer for reconciliation and unity, but know that it will take some time to get over the rawness anger and disappointment felt by many.

  5. I'm not a sentimental, teary, or even particularly soft-hearted person. I'm not the kind and forgiving soul that you undoubtedly are, Michael. But as I read this post to my - atheist - husband, I couldn't get through it for the tears. He just sat and listened quietly, and stroked the dog. In the midst of all this sadness and anger, in a part of the country - rural North Yorkshire - which has more than its share of Leave voters, some of them my personal friends, I have thought of one small, positive, thing we Remainers can do: adopt the European flag as a quiet symbol of our protest and our values. A small, enamel, lapel badge, bearing the flag, would tell those we meet, especially those from other European countries who may now be feeling insecure and excluded, that we welcome them. If the 16 million-plus of us who voted Remain adopted the practice, it would surely send a powerful message. We can also, as some already have, adopt the flag as our FaceBook and Twitter gravatars. I am sure others will have more creative ideas. I thought of this in the middle of another sleep-deprived and turbulent night. Thank you for your words. Although not ready to accept defeat/exile quite yet, they are comforting and convince me, if ever I had any doubt, that the Remain vote was the right one, morally as well as socially and economically.