Central to the Church of England’s self-understanding is its vocation to be a ‘church of the nation’ – a public institution ready to bring a theological voice to the national debates of the day. By any measure, Brexit has turned out to be the most impassioned and divisive national question of the last half century. The question confronts all four nations of the United Kingdom in different ways but, given the centrality to Brexit of a resurgent English nationalism, it is most neuralgic for England, to which the Church of England’s mission is primarily directed.
Since 2016, several individual bishops, some in their capacity as Lords Spiritual, and other leading Anglicans, clerical and lay, have sought to contribute to this debate, often with thoughtfulness and depth. Christians from other denominations, and voices from other faiths, have done the same. Yet the Church of England has so far been unable to bring any authoritative collective voice to the national conversation.
No debate specifically on Brexit has taken place in General Synod. Commendably, a motion on the social divisions exacerbated by Brexit was introduced by the Archbishops at the February synod this year, but it made no mention of Brexit. Nor has the House of Bishops been able to muster any formal public statement on the question – even though it was able in 2015 to produce an engaging pre-election statement, Who Is My Neighbour?
An easy explanation for this official silence suggests itself. A referendum exit poll conducted by Greg Smith and Linda Woodhead revealed that English Anglicans are as divided on Brexit as the general population, with 66% reportedly having voted Leave. One can appreciate that this balance of opinion might have given the church’s leadership pause over any kind of intervention, especially since almost all bishops seem to be Remainers.
But this cannot be a sufficient account of the church’s institutional reticence on the most vexatious public issue of our generation. Deep and acrimonious divisions among members of the church did not prevent the leadership publicly defending a highly controversial stance (the traditional one) on same-sex marriage in 2013. And in any case, since when was the mind of the church, or the teaching authority of bishops, supposed to be subject to opinion polls of self-identifying ‘Anglicans’, many of whom never darken the doors of the church?
A more plausible explanation lies in the combination of the daunting complexity of the issue itself and the longstanding deficit of theologically-informed reflection on the EU among British theologians and Christian politicians, Anglicans included. Like so many institutions, the church was simply caught in the headlights, ill-equipped to respond promptly and intelligently to an issue that thrust itself suddenly upon a woefully unprepared nation.
By contrast, two weeks before the referendum (coincidentally), the Council of European Churches published a substantial open letter to all European churches on the future of the EU, drawing on years of serious prior reflection on European integration. Most of this work will be entirely unknown to English churches and public theologians.
Even those who lament the church’s official silence on Brexit might at this point nevertheless retort, understandably, that the train has left the station – the church must now move on, accepting whatever turns out to be the outcome and dealing pastorally with the consequences as best it can.
In recent months, however, some have suggested a more ambitious strategy: that the church should seek to engage in some process of post-Brexit ‘reconciliation’. But that is a hugely premature and presumptuous aspiration. It fails to acknowledge the scale and intensity of the national demons Brexit has unleashed, circumvents a necessary confrontation with its causes and consequences, and vastly overestimates the church’s match fitness for such a task.
The church should instead consider a different strategy. The precondition of any meaningful reconciliation is some degree of public reckoning with truth. Without that, gestures toward ‘reconciliation’ risk being little more than a virtue-signalling sham.
It is evident that one of the greatest casualties of Brexit has been public truth. In the referendum campaign, both sides projected serious distortions of the truth about many issues: the nature, achievements and failings of the EU; the costs and benefits of UK membership; the sheer complexity of leaving; the causes and impact of background factors such as economic inequality and rising immigration; and the nature of and supposed threats to British/English identity.
Obviously the Church of England claims no special insight on matters such as the fine print of a trade deal or the precise jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It claims no monopoly on truth of any kind. But it has access to extensive resources of theological reflection on fundamental questions such as the meaning of sovereignty, the value and limits of national loyalty, the significance of place and tradition, the requirements of representation, the dangers of overweening power, the demands of hospitality to strangers, the shape of economic justice and the vocation to international solidarity.
It also has extensive pastoral experience from across the country of why people voted Leave or Remain and what Brexit means for ordinary citizens, especially the vulnerable and voiceless.
It is not too late for the church to muster such resources and offer a theologically rich analysis of this crisis in our national life – to tell the truth as it sees it about our current malaise, yet without cheaply taking sides. The profoundly unsettling questions Brexit poses to our national self-understanding will disturb us for many years, whether or not we actually leave the EU in 2019 and, if so, on what terms. A theologically searching contribution, inviting all English citizens, and the church itself, to engage honestly with challenging truths about ourselves, our national priorities and our place in the world, would show that the church was indeed still ready to be a servant of a hurting nation – and not a mere bystander as the nation descends further into fragmentation and mutual recrimination.
Dr Jonathan Chaplin is an independent scholar specialising in political theology. He is a member of an Anglican church in Cambridge. He is co-editor of The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on British Identity and European Solidarity (SPCK, 2020).