This week I put in an appearance on the BBC's Sunday Programme on Radio 4. I was invited, as convenor of "Christians for the EU" to take part in a discussion with my opposite number from "Christians for Britain". I suppose we are both campaigning organisations though I'm not sure I like the label much. What we are both trying to do is to apply a Christian mind and Christian wisdom to the EU referendum. We hold entirely different positions on whether the UK should remain in or leave. But I think the debate is worth having between Christian people who want to make a decision informed by good theology, ethics and practice.
Later that morning, I was surprised to find that a number of people had been listening. (Why weren't they enjoying a lie-in on Sunday like other civilised folk? I quipped.) Some said they agreed with what I'd said, some were clear that they disagreed wholly or in part, while yet others were carefully saying in an Athenian sort of way "we will hear you again about this" (Acts 17.32). But they all seemed to welcome the airing the EU referendum was getting on a religious news programme. Once upon a time some might have said that the church "shouldn't mess with politics". Not now.
On the radio we were asked what role the church should play in the debate. Here's what we agreed on (I'm expanding a little here, but I'm pretty confident the loyal opposition wouldn't dissent). 1 - That the churches absolutely must not tell anyone how to vote. 2 - That churches should urge their members to think hard about the issues, offer them to God in prayer and reflection, and discuss and debate them with others, whether Christians, people of other faiths, or those with no particular religious commitment. 3 - And that the churches should set up events of all kinds - public fora, study groups, vigils for prayer and meditation - so that lay people and clergy are given all the resources they need when it comes to casting their vote on 23 June.
But what about the churches giving a lead by coming to a view and saying so publicly? Let's be a bit controversial for once.
I keep being told that there is no possibility of the Church of England, which is what I know best, declaring for one side or the other. Its bishops are being hesitant in telling us what they think: some episcopal bloggers believe that "taking sides" on a political matter like this doesn't belong to their public roles as church leaders because it would be construed as directing people what to think. At a time of division, the church should be there as a place of healing and reconciliation, not division and disunity.
Why don't I altogether agree with this line of argument?
By way of answer, let me quote a statement issued by the Church of Scotland in February, just before the referendum date was announced.
The Church of Scotland has called for a positive debate on the EU that considers its role in promoting peace security and international cooperation. The Church recognises that:
1. A referendum will be held and that could be in as little as four months.
2. The Church of Scotland General Assembly has supported remaining in the EU since 1996.
3. In this time of huge international challenge it is crucial to work together across national borders.
4. In deciding how to vote on this momentous decision we should consider issues of peace, security and international cooperation.
Rev Dr Richard Frazer, Vice Convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council said:
"Since last year's General Election, we have known that there will be a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the European Union. There is likely to be a very short timescale to discuss such an important set of issues. It will be a decision which will shape our country, our communities and our lives for generations to come. It is vital that there is now a respectful, engaging, but above all positive debate which will focus on important issues.
"Since its report in 1996 "The European Union – Crisis or opportunity" the Church of Scotland has repeatedly affirmed the work of the European Union in promoting peace, security and reconciliation amongst European nations. As recently as 2014 the General Assembly stated its opinion that 'it is better for Scotland, Britain and Europe for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU.'
"At a time when there is great conflict in the world, when we are faced with millions of desperate people seeking refuge in Europe and where climate change is wreaking havoc, there is a need to work internationally and globally. We need a bigger picture of the world, not a smaller one. The decision on which way to vote in June is one for each individual to reflect on and make with integrity, but it is in working together, across national borders, that real progress will be made."
This statement seems to me to be exemplary in every way. It's clearly not telling its members how to vote but it does offer guidance about the issues involved. In particular, it urges Christians to think beyond their own interests and their own country into a 'bigger picture of the world' and to have regard for social justice, peace, security and international collaboration. Its tone is measured, restrained and eirenical. If someone dissents with its content, there is space to do so without any loss of integrity or standing. And it invites people to engage seriously with the debate as a matter of urgency, whatever their personal convictions. It allows for "good disagreement".
I ask myself: why could not the Church of England make a similar statement? After all, the Kirk is the national church of Scotland and has a vocation to speak for the Scottish people. The Church of England is similarly placed. In the past, it has not been afraid to take a stand in the face of considerable unpopularity in some quarters: Faith In The City and The Church and the Bomb are just two well-known precedents. Where the EU debate is similar is that it is not dividing the nation along party-political lines. If it were, the church would indeed want to promote debate but would wisely not commit to a particular party line - precisely how it plays its part before each election.
Of course the Church of England General Synod has not debated the EU referendum, nor has it come to a common mind about the European Union in the way that the Church of Scotland General Assembly did in 1996. The General Synod doesn't now meet again until after it's all over, so we have lost a golden opportunity (even though we've known since the general election that a referendum would be coming down the slipway). Even the February Synod would not have been too late. But nothing was said as far as I know, apart from a question about how church members would be helped to think about the issues raised by the referendum. (The written answer was along the lines of my third paragraph above. It was fine as far as it went. But I longed for much more, a proper Synod debate at least.)
But there is nothing to stop the C of E's Mission and Public Affairs Committee coming to a view and declaring it: it's already energetically promoting EU discussion and debates in English dioceses and cathedrals (for which, thank you!). The Archbishops' and Bishops' Councils and Diocesan Synods could do the same. There is nothing to stop bishops coming out with their views, whatever they are, in presidential addresses to synods, in papers, blogs, broadcasts, Parliament (if they are in the House of Lords) and social media. I said on the air waves that I hoped preachers would take up these themes in the run-up to June 23rd. (Unless church members regularly visit social media feeds like this one, they may well not hear Christian insight into the referendum anywhere else but in their local church.)
Let me add this. Not to take initiatives like these in relation to this once-for-all decision would look as though the church was not greatly interested. That would not play well in an environment where "public faith" is now rightly the expectation placed on a national church. The C of E is one of the leading Christian voices that speaks for England as its established church out of an extraordinarily rich theological and spiritual wisdom. That's a hugely privileged position to take, but it's also a big responsibility. There is a vast resource of Christian social theology written by Church of England theologians and others which, coupled with an accurate instinct for the Zeitgeist of our people, is uniquely placed to make a vital contribution to the discussion enlightened and enlivened by the gospel's grace and truth.
So here's my plea. Let's take a modest risk here and be brave enough to speak in a prophetic and wise spirit. I'd love it if the national and diocesan Church of England bodies I've mentioned could emulate the Church of Scotland's exemplary lead, not just in what it says but the skilful way it says it. I'd love it if other churches across the UK did the same. Even when views differed, it would still be very good for the quality of the debate. It would be marvellous if it helped mobilise the UK population to be as politically engaged with the EU referendum process as the people of Scotland were before the independence vote in 2014. That would be to perform a really important service for church and nation. Its effects would, I believe, far outlast the outcome of the referendum itself.
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