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

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Brexit: An Open Letter to the Archbishops of the Church of England

Dear Archbishops

I am writing to you as the Presidents of the General Synod to ask that an emergency motion on the outcome of last week's Referendum should be placed on the agenda of the forthcoming meeting in July.

It's now clear that our nation has suffered its biggest cataclysm since the last War. Its causes are complex and it's too early to understand them fully. However, we can now see that the future looks deeply uncertain politically, economically and in terms of the UK's place in the world of tomorrow.

It has, I admit, worried me greatly that our national church has not spoken as an institution about the Referendum. We have all known that the vote was coming since the general election of 2015. It would have been possible to schedule a General Synod debate in February 2016 even though the Referendum date was not yet known when the agenda was being planned. I find it extraordinary that in the face of a national decision wth such momentous ethical and social justice aspects to it (and I would add, theological too), the Synod and the House of Bishops have been collectively silent. It feels to me like a failure of spiritual leadership towards the people of England.

I did not anticipate that the Church of England would take a position on the European Union (though that is in marked contrast to the other national church in these islands, the Church of Scotland). Nor do I expect this now. However, at a time when England is so divided between London and the provinces, when the future of the Union here in Britain is at real risk, and when the entire continent of Europe is facing unprecedented turmoil, it seems to me all the more essential to allow a proper debate to help our nation find wisdom and stability as we move into an unmapped landscape.

The Church of England has always had a strongly international outlook. The Anglican Communion has of course required us to be an outward-facing church. But so have our flourishing relations with the churches in Europe, both east and west. I know how much these relationships mean to both of you. I am also grateful that that you both spoke personally about the Referendum during the campaign, along with other bishops, and this will have been helpful to many, not only within the churches. 

However, not to grasp the opportunity posed by the imminent York Synod would, I think, baffle a great many people who, if not all committed Christians, are our friends and fellow-travellers. I realise that a great deal of synodical time is already committed to the shared conversations about human sexuality. I entirely support this as essential too. But you can imagine the headlines following the Synod's failure to debate this matter that is preoccupying the nation's mind: "Church of England shuns Brexit crisis debate in favour of sex!"  That would not play well publicly.

As the founder of "Christians for Europe" and in a long series of blogs, I have not apologised for bringing a Christian perspective on the EU Referendum and making the case for Remain. But I am not asking the Synod to rerun the arguments on either side. What matters now is to chart a course for the future. The voice of the church needs to be heard as we try to set our bearings in this crisis. The General Synod can and must help us do that.  So I urge you to allow a debate to take place that may make an important contribution in this process.

With best wishes and prayers,


  1. Think you need to find a nice little retierment job michael, maybe volunteer in a museum or something. #toomuchtimeonyourhands!

    1. No need to be sarky, Bill. Haven't you noticed the abuse of foreign nationals that's started up? And people voted out on the basis of false information. Many people think we're already out, and that foreign nationals all have to leave. It's deeply unhealthy.

  2. I have and it disturbs me. But you can't deny, there is an air of pomposity in the old school Anglican Clergy, that comes across as 'we are better than you'.Its boring and its time to change.

  3. Odd that you should read it this way. Just trying to get a debate going in the national church, that's all. And yes, plenty of other things to fill retirement. If this irritates you, press the "off" button fast!

  4. Michael+,

    My wife just forwarded me a recent post from Archbishop Cranmer reporting some of the post-Brexit posts from pro-Remain clergy (including yourself). While your reference to keeping company with Marine Le Pen could I suppose be viewed merely as a warning, it's hard to escape the feeling - especially given the posts of some of your colleagues - that the taint is considered to attach to every Leave voter. If Giles Frasier can be accused of racism for his support of Brexit, then it's hard to see how any Synod debate is going to do much to restore a sense of unity (in the Church or out of it).

    I did not believe the material pledges (on funding or immigration) proffered by the Brexit camp and they were never my motivation for voting Leave. What I hoped - and still hope - is that it will prompt a reconsideration of the scope of political union and a recommitment to subsidiarity. Sadly, it has required the departure of an economy of our size to concentrate minds in Brussels and Strasbourg.

    I am struck by the fact that nothing in your above proposal suggests that you wish to reach out to those Synod members who supported Leave and their constituents (including an embarassingly high number of those in your part of the world). As a cultural conservative, a (mildly) economic liberal, a church historian and a high church Anglican, I'm inclined to resent my Referendum vote being dismissed by my former dean (we've worshipped at the Cathedral since 2014 and my wife has been engaged in a project to record the graffiti on the stonework) as the product of emotion and racism.

  5. Thank you. Feelings are running high after the vote, given that it was so close. It's true that I've campaigned for Remain as passionately if not as articulately as Adrian Hilton and Giles Fraser have campaigned for Leave. I very much hope that our Christian fellowship has not been harmed by quite sharp differences. I have tried hard never to impugn the motives of those who differ and haven't joined with the increasingly shrill voices who urge that all Brexiters are racists. This would be not only absurd but offensive. But if I've said or implied anything like this I shall unreservedly say I am truly sorry. "Good disagreement" is becoming a bit of a formula but I believe we must pursue it for the sake of our unity in Christ. I hope it goes without saying that I completely respect the vote of those who differ: handling difference and not allowing it to create resentment and bitterness is how we must all learn to live as mature adults.

    The General Synod will already be testing its ability to practise it in the shared conversations about human sexuality at the forthcoming Synod. The EU debate needs to take place in the same spirit. I believe that as I said in my letter, it's not a matter of rerunning the debate but rather of seeking wisdom as we go forward as a nation and as a church. I think it's worrying that the national church has said nothing as an institution about the Referendum, and this could be perceived as not being concerned about it one way or the other. I'm simply wanting us to correct that mis-impression in the belief that the church really does have something to say that could be helpful and healing. I do not know what that could be but I'm sure that the collective minds and hearts of the Synod members will discern it at the right time.

  6. Well, Michael, I thought you made your point well. Of course there are people who voted leave for perfectly sensible reasons. I'm afraid I voted remain at least partly because I didn't fancy Boris as PM, and that's not a particularly brilliant reason. But Jeremy, I'm afraid the leave campaign did play on racism, even if not everyone bought into that message. Now it's done, I'm really concerned about the attacks, and I find it very depressing.

  7. Pleased to announce that there will now be the debate I hoped for at the July group of sessions of the General Synod.

  8. OK, I lost my bet. Just as well I didn't put my shirt on Boris for PM by Christmas! What a relief! I met a fan while I was in an antique shop earlier today. Oh no, they didn't play the racist card! I bit me tongue.

  9. Whilst I am pleased that you have achieved a debate on the Referendum it might be more helpful if the Synod agreed a statement of intent on the way ahead. It seems to me, as Joe Public, that leadership is what the United Kingdom needs at the moment. Airs, graces and pontification about the recent past are of little practical use.

  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMJZuIaOl98

  11. The trouble is, Synod has no wider influence. However wise and measured its statements may be, they are going to sound silly if there's no way they will/can be implemented.