How the Church lost its flock over Brexit
Credit: Chris Ratcliffe / Getty   

Last week, 60 or so church leaders of various denominations gathered at Lambeth Palace to discuss the way forward for the churches after Brexit. Bishops and academics from all over Europe came together to read papers about Christian solidarity, about how the European Union was fundamentally a Christian project, and what the church might offer to a divided nation.

Of those gathered, perhaps only a couple of us were enthusiastic proponents of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Within the Church of England, there exists a split between the bishops and their congregations – bishops being overwhelmingly pro-Remain and regular churchgoers being slightly pro-Leave with occasional ones being significantly pro-Leave. I half imagined being rolled in a ball in the corner of the room with lots of men in purple dresses putting the boot in. But that didn’t happen. Instead, there was lots of tea and some regretful hand wringing. And, encouragingly, there were even some faint signs that church leaders were beginning to listen to their congregations.

The most interesting thing that I took away from the day, listening especially to German Christians, was how the EU became, for them, a sort of project of atonement for the consequences of German nationalism – that the shame of Nazism led them to reject any starry-eyed or romantic conception of the nation and to replace it by what Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm from the University of Bamberg called a “nationalism of rules”.

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In other words, that a particular people might be united not by the dangerous emotionalism of flag waving but by a decidedly unemotional common bureaucracy that could be rolled out to embrace different nations, united under a set of administrative rules and procedures. One German academic there spoke of the need for the UK to be “integrated into the European cultural synthesis”. I shuddered and thought of the Borg in Star Trek, a hive mind where all cultural distinctiveness will be assimilated. Forget subsidiarity. “Resistance is futile,” say the Borg.

As Brits, our reaction to the Second World War was inevitably entirely different from that of the Germans. We didn’t experience the humiliation of our nationalism, but quite the opposite: its overwhelming endorsement. For it was precisely through the sort of communal solidarity and fellow feeling that nationalism provides that we summoned the strength to stand against Nazism and help defeat it.

The massive outpouring of feeling and relief at the end of the war, the “never surrender” attitude, the solidarity forged by the Blitz, those familiar images of thousands of demobilised soldiers waving the union flag in Piccadilly, all that and more is why it is inevitable that the Germans and the British are going to have entirely different approaches to the moral valence of the nation state.

In the course of our discussion at Lambeth Palace, the former Chairman of HSBC bank, and ordained member of the Church of England, Lord Stephen Green, raised the issue of nationalism by speaking of his unease at the worlds of the hymn, “I vow to thee my country”, and in particular:

“The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.”

For Lord Green, such words suggest an uncritical estimation of the nation state, and one that is dangerously allied with a sense that we are better than other people. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed some unease with the words of that hymn.

Lord Green, of course, ran a bank whose advertising has consistently presented itself as the world’s bank. One of his bank’s recent ads stars Richard Ayoade as a ‘Global Citizen’ speaking about his love of Columbian or Costa Rican coffee, that we enjoy with a Danish. We drive German and Japanese cars, he says. We watch American movies on Korean tablets, or football heroes are Brazilian or Belgium, and so on. Ayoade places a small jigsaw piece of Britain into a map of the world, “We are not an island. We are part of something far, far bigger.” The end card reads: “Together we thrive.”

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The socialist in me believes that large international banks such as HSBC deploy the soft and apparently inclusive language of globalisation as PR for the triumph of international capitalism. And that it is capitalism that has done more to set the agenda for the internationalism of the post-war period than the trans-national rules-based order to which Professor Bedford-Strohm was referring. There are those who argue that only a international rules based order such as the EU is big enough to set limits on the detrimental effects of global capitalism. Others see it as complicit and enabling.

It struck me as odd that the national church should have so little so say that was positive about the very idea of the nation state. The Bishop of Burnley complained that too many clergy squirm uncomfortably through Remembrance Day services. He’s right: despite the Queen being the head of the Church of England, some look as though they are crossing their fingers behind their backs when they sing the National Anthem.

At the meeting, David Goodhart expressed some frustration with Church leaders:

“The trouble with this bit of the Church is that they have turned themselves into a subaltern ideological sub-set of the Anywhere liberal class – the educated, mobile, secular, cognitive class, with its bias toward the rational, the open, the autonomous, the individual – a quick witted, goal oriented, solution focused worldview.”

These are the clients to whom HSBC has pitched its ad. For Goodhart, however, the whole point of a family, a church and a nation is that they accept people uncritically – and not on the basis of how clever they are, how mobile, how rich or how solution focused. This is indeed the love that asks no question. You belong to the group and are valued by it simply because you are a member of it. The family, the church and the nation are spaces where all are welcomed and esteemed irrespective of class, talent or ethnicity. This is the moral case for the nation state.

The final verse of “I vow to thee my Country” sets the nation state in the context of a wider vision of God’s inclusive love:

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace”

The job of the church is not to be a faintly Left-wing lobbying group for a slightly more redistributive tax policy or a more European focused Brexit deal. The job of the church is to point to this “other country”, God’s kingdom, and to set family, church and nation under its domain. The churches of the European Union, indeed the Churches of the world, should be united here, in communion – and not by a placeless bureaucracy of rules. It was rather telling that when the Archbishop celebrated communion at lunchtime that not all of those present were able to receive. It is a bit rich for the church to lecture the country on unity when it cannot achieve it itself.

The Remain/Leave division is not the same as this. One contributor, Ben Ryan from the Theos think tank, described it as being something more akin to the divide between head and soul. The head speaks about power and economic strength, the soul seeks belonging and communal solidarity or what we used to call love. Love is specific, never abstract or general. Christ expressed his love for the world by coming into the world in a specific place and to a specific people. The incarnation of that ‘other country’ was shockingly particular.

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At its best, and when not trying to be bit-players in policy debates, the church does indeed do precisely this. The parish system roots the church in the specifics of time and space. It refuses the abstract political and concentrates on real lives lived by real people – and political, yes, when urgent themes of injustice grow out of that specificity.

But church leaders and bishops, having been promoted out of the parishes, onward and upward, and into the job of church management, can sometimes put their faith too much in that bureaucracy of rules and love-as-management. Those in the pews are longing for something different.

The historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari has characterised modernity as that point in world history where human beings swap meaning for power – where they swap (the meaning of) the soul for (the power of) the head. Brexit may be a reaction against this Faustian exchange. And the church should take advantage.