Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Day Before the Vote: how to prepare

Tomorrow is the last day of the referendum campaign. What's the significance of the "day before"?

The temptation will be to engage in a frantic bout of last-minute canvassing, arguing, blogging and generally engorging ourselves in a social media frenzy. As someone who passionately believes that the EU is good for Britain and Britain for the EU, I'm as desperate to win the contest as every other Remainer. When the race is neck-and-neck, that final sprint to the finishing-line can make all the difference.

But I'm wondering whether to be "desperate" is quite right. If this has been a real debate in which we have been listening well and paying attention to one another (fond hope!), our campaign needs to end in a considered way. To crash into the buffers at the stroke of midnight is not how to conclude a serious process of laying bare what really matters in the decision we must make the next day.

At "Christians for Europe" we've tried to model a reflective approach to the referendum. We haven't always got it right but we have not wanted to disparage anyone, impugn their motives or shout. We've wanted to respect people who differ from us in good faith, even if disagreement has sometimes been sharp, like Paul and Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles. If we have given offence, we are sorry. "Good disagreement" is becoming something of a mantra in faith circles, but it's precisely what we believe about how at our best we should be listening and talking to one another.

But we don't at all apologise for stating clearly what we believe, which is that Christianity requires us to have regard for the neighbour, the stranger and the needy. Our faith urges us to live together in community rather than apart. Its social theology highlights the imperatives of solidarity and the common good. This is why we believe it points us in the direction of playing a leading role within the EU, not turning our back on our friends and allies. We believe that God cares about our nation, our continent and our world. We believe that by being a leading member of the EU, our nation will have a democratic, peaceful "reach" that transcends the boundaries of Europe. We believe that it's in the interests of peace, justice and the integrity of creation that we remain and don't leave. That's an ethical, theological and spiritual position to take. It's much more than mere pragmatism.

If you follow this blog, you'll know that I've been trying to nuance that set of affirmations in a number of different ways since late last year. There's nothing more I can add at this late stage. Except, to come back to where I started: what tomorrow could mean for us. Bear with me. 

The day before the referendum, 22 June, is Saint Alban's Day. He is celebrated as the first British martyr who, when Christianity was under severe persecution, was executed for sheltering a Christian priest. The pagan Alban had been so impressed by the devotion of his guest that he converted and became a Christian himself. When the Romans came to search his house, he changed into the priest's clothes and presented himself to the soldiers. His punishment was to suffer what would have been due to the priest. Bede tells of this, Britain's "proto-martyrdom" in words that indicate how moved he was to have heard about it. 

Britain (as distinct from its member nations) doesn't have a patron saint. Alban is the obvious candidate. He embodies everything that is noblest in human nature when it is redeemed by grace and love. His hospitality to and care for someone who needed sanctuary is a powerful metaphor of one central issue in this campaign. Every Christian, every decent human being, must be alarmed at the xenophobic, not to say racist undertones of the more extreme Brexiters' discourse. The Hebrew Bible commands us unambiguously never to forget "the stranger who is in your midst". Jo Cox lived and died campaigning for some of the most needy people on the planet. Justin Welby was completely right to condemn UKIP's hateful, hate-filled poster with its sinister echoes of the 1930s. Alban shows us the more excellent way of love. What better patron saint for the British people to be proud of?

And he took this way of loving to the very end. St John says this is precisely how Jesus "loved his own". He laid down his life for a friend, just as Jesus did. If ever one human being modelled what a whole nation could be like, it is Alban. To give up your life for others is how the gospel says we must all live. What I've disliked more than anything else in this campaign has been the self-serving rhetoric of so many of our political leaders. "What's best for Britain, what's best for you the electorate" can only be part of the story, and not even the most important part. The headline ought to have been: how can this great nation of ours that in two world wars "laid down its life" for its European friends and allies suffering under the iron fist of fascism, do the same again in 2016? What's good for Europe, for the wider human family? I've no hesitation in saying that the UK has an outstanding contribution to make to global politics and the mending of a broken humanity. I unhesitatingly say that we're best placed to do this inside the EU. Alban can be our model of Britain-in-Europe.

So how shall we spend St Alban's Day? By learning from his example, I say, and trying to imitate it. In this final blog before the vote, I'm asking that we find time tomorrow to reflect on the values our faith teaches us and ask how they translate into our decision. Put it this way. The X on your ballot paper stands for two things. The first is the title of "Christ" himself (from the initial Greek letter of the word Christos, χ). The second is that it represents the cross on which he gave his life, the inspiration that led Alban to make the supreme sacrifice that he did. Your simple X on your voting slip is filled with a profound and eloquent symbolism. 

What would this Christ want us as a nation to do at this cross-roads (pun intended) in our history? I'm not falling into the trap of imagining I know where he would cast his vote - if he had been unlucky enough to have to make a choice. But the faith I follow bears his name and it leads me to believe that what I must do is to try to imitate him in his living and dying. That means I simply cannot vote only with my own interests in mind, but must think first and foremost of the millions of others in our country, our continent and our world who are very much less privileged than I am. That's what St Alban's Day unambiguously teaches me.

Here's a suggestion. Why not stop campaigning at noon tomorrow, and spend the rest of the day reflecting on the values that matter most profoundly to us? A great decision needs vigils of prayer, not just good debate; so that when we come to vote, it becomes an act of prayerful, courageous love that springs directly out of our heart and soul and mind and strength. If it calls us to lay down our lives or our self-centeredness, so be it. That's the cost of discipleship, isn't it? Alban our native British saint can inspire us to make the generous, unselfish choice. 

In this spirit, "Christians for Europe" will stop posting at 12 noon tomorrow. After that, we could get on with the day job, cook a nice dinner, go for a walk, play football, read a novel, watch a movie... anything to give our over-stimulated brains a rest for a while. Maybe even take a nap - therd could be a long night ahead. 

Oh, and it goes without saying: reflect quietly, think carefully and say our prayers. 


  1. I have tried to follow all your blogs, but sadly I find them increasingly difficult to read. I do have some visual impairment but even on my large iMac screen the blue background and small font combination is too much, and I wonder if others have the same difficulty.

  2. I wouldn't be able to read it on yellow! White would be better for me. Oh, and Michael, either you or your spell checker has changed "condemn" into "commend". You need to change it!

  3. I'll be voting to stay. I think what has confirmed it for me is things like that poster. It is a deliberate attempt to conflate Poles queuing for benefits(!!) with people fleeing from bombs. That's nasty.

  4. Thanks to Athena for comments once again. Have changed "commended" to "condemned". As you say blame the auto-correct - I doubt it was a Freudian slip on my part!

  5. Sorry if anyone is finding the blog hard to read. You should be able to increase the font to any size you want, or on mobile devices simply spread the screen outwards with your hand. I'll look at this when the Referendum and its aftermath have receded somewhat!