Brexit – what now?

Nov 20, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

It’s the most important thing happening in our country at the moment, if the news headlines are to be believed. The UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, and ever since then there has been a deepening crisis as our governing party and the wider political class are utterly divided over how to manage the exit, or even whether we can reverse the decision an stay in the EU after all. Every day the ordinary citizens hear the same arguments, which began nearly three years ago, being rehashed over and over again. Some are committed to a particular vision which they think can be achieved; perhaps the majority are experiencing a gamut of emotions, from despair to apathy to hope, often coping with tragicomic gallows humour.

We took an editorial decision at Anglican Mainstream not to take a party line on Brexit, because there is not an obvious biblical position on it. The push to normalize new humanist understandings of gender, sex and marriage in churches and schools is clearly in opposition to primary Christian doctrines on what it means to be human, and go directly against clear biblical ethical teaching. Likewise, the increasing promotion of Islam in the public square and even in church settings goes way beyond good community relations; it denies the uniqueness of Christ and undermines the Christian heritage of the nation. But membership of the European Union, or leaving it, can’t be shown to be either biblical or a serious error in the same way.

There are philosophies behind both the EU and Brexit which conform to the gospel, and those which are opposed to it. Christians who are united on the basics of Christian faith have been divided on Brexit, with some saying it is a stupid mistake, likely to cause economic recession and international instability, others convinced that it will result in new opportunities for prosperity and bringing an independent nation back to God.

The vote in 2016, and subsequent events, have told us a great deal about ourselves as a nation. 51.9% of people voted to leave the EU for many different reasons: patriotism, and suspicion of an increasingly powerful supra-national organization which appeared to be taking away national self-determination. Worries about the scale and poor planning of immigration and failure of integration, especially from non-European cultures. A feeling that the Westminster politicians running the country are an out-of-touch elite like the EU bureaucracy itself; a sense that change is necessary because the status quo is not delivering contentment.

It’s often assumed that ‘vote leave’ won because of false promises (for example, “£350 million per week for the NHS instead of membership fees for the EU”). It has even been alleged that interference from foreign powers on social media persuaded many undecided voters to back the Leave campaign at the last moment. But against this must be balanced the undeniable fact that the Leave vote was secured despite huge social stigma against that position in certain circles. 48.1% voted to remain, many despite seeing many disadvantages in EU membership. I can come clean here – I voted Remain, mainly because I thought it would take such a huge amount of time and energy to work out the complications of how to disentangle our laws and agreements from the EU, for an uncertain future (and so it has proved, so far). I didn’t believe that leaving the EU would rid us of political correctness, because this ideology is firmly embedded in our institutions and can’t be blamed just on Europe’s influence. There must have been many like me – and yet Leave still won the vote, supported by a silent, largely older population, keeping their opinions to themselves until the ballot box.

Most Anglicans, and in fact most Christians voted to Leave, despite most Bishops and senior church leaders being in favour of remaining. As the Archbishop of Canterbury to his credit recognized early on, many of these ordinary Christian Leavers were not grumpy isolationists or right-wing racists, but pillars of their communities, people of prayer who put love of neighbour into practice. They were feeling uncomfortable about what the UK was becoming under a liberal Western technocratic system. But at the same time, large numbers of Christians voted to remain who were not theological liberals who believe in a sinister leftist one world government, but born-again evangelicals concerned about the impact of an unnecessary major change.

For ardent supporters of Brexit, the divorce from the EU will have been a success if it results in the UK leaving the EU with no formal deal except agreements to trade on WTO rules, and some other essential cooperations. But for the majority, the whole process has been deeply unsatisfactory and exposed the lamentable failure of politics in the UK. People were given a binary choice: remain or leave. They expected politicians to be able to deliver. But the binary choice was not a balanced choice: to deliver one was always going to be a hundred times more difficult and mind-bogglingly complex than the other.

As I write, we are still no closer to knowing what will happen to our country, even though we are due to leave the EU in less than four months. Do we leave without a deal and forge a new exciting path as a fully independent nation, or can we have a new referendum, agree to stay in after all, and see the past three years as a bad dream? Do we accept Mrs May’s negotiated compromise, or unseat her and hammer out a new deal – and then even if that were possible, would it be ‘harder’ or ‘softer’?

The vote in 2016 told us that most people want to leave the EU. Since then we are no closer to reaching any agreement on how it should be done. At a time of national crisis, leaders sometimes emerge who can articulate a vision which the majority can share, and lead us through the difficult time ahead. But so far, while one can admire the hard work and dedication of some of our politicians who are trying to make the best of an almost impossible brief, it’s difficult to see who the people are who will go down in history as those who can unite, inspire and direct.

How do we interpret this from a Christian perspective? Is the Brexit confusion a sign of God’s judgement on the nation, like the collapse of the tower of Babel? Or are we in the darkest hour before the dawn, with a complete break from Europe the beginning of a new era of blessing? Perhaps, as the New Testament seems to teach, the shape of Brexit (or not) will ultimately not matter: the political colour of a government, it’s macro-economic and international relations policies, are not as important as the faithfulness and holiness of the church, its ongoing witness to the gospel of Jesus to all communities, and its care for the needy. We can’t agree with each other on what form our nation  should take, but we should be able to unite to pray for the government and the country in the days ahead, modelling humility and hope in God’s mercy in place of human ingenuity and hubris. Is this a model for solving church debates on sexuality? No, because there are many possible paths for a nation and its inhabitants to take, but only one Christian faith.

See also: Anglican Bishop says second referendum would make things worse, by Marcus Jones, Premier

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