The nightmare of EU neutrality and the dream of theological acumen

Published by Reimagining Europe

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, says I challenged the Bishop of Guildford (and, by implication, the rest of the bishops) “to keep quiet” about their views on remaining in or leaving the European Union. I really didn’t. I’ve spent the past decade slogging and blogging away quite assiduously to make the point that Christian conviction demands political engagement: bishops should freely do politics and politicians shouldn’t be afraid to ‘do God’. My challenge (if it was that) concerned the disparity (if not gulf) between the Church of England’s stated position of neutrality on the matter of Brexit, and the preponderance of bishops who are all manifestly desirous that people should see sense and vote Remain, for that is the civilised, enlightened and most Christian path.

As +Nick says, it would indeed be absurd to demand that bishops should be neutral, or even to pretend that they can be. We all carry our baggage of political biases and the dimmed perspectives of inculturation. But if the church has stated that it will not push a particular position, how can it be right (or wise) for so many of its leaders to do so?

Aren’t senior executives of an organisation the custodians of a mission statement and the reification of an ethos? Isn’t that why John Longworth was suspended by the British Chambers of Commerce and then felt obliged to resign? I hear only today that a respected Christian magistrate of 15 years has been sacked by the Lord Chancellor for sharing his personal conviction in a media interview that having a mother and a father is in the best interest of adopted children. There is no apparent distinction between a magistrate speaking on the telly in a personal capacity and one issuing a judgement from the bench.

So how can you tell if a bishop is speaking in a personal or ecclesial capacity? Surely there can (or should) be no distinction. He or she is a bishop 24/7/365.25 (they can’t not be a bishop even in a leap year). I did some Twitter crowd-sourcing on this. The Rev’d Stephen Heard was of the view that bishops may not speak in a personal capacity: “He or she is always a bishop: episcopacy is not like a cassock that can be put on and taken off,” he said. Ali Campbell thought they may do so, “but how they will be interpreted is beyond their control and therein lies the problem of doing so”.

Isn’t that the point? Forget pedantic theologians and ecclesiastics quibbling over theory-praxis freedoms and tensions: the world does not distinguish between an ‘official’ church line and a bishop’s personal opinion. When a bishop speaks personally, he or she is speaking ecclesially, and vice versa. When a whole psalter of bishops advocates ‘Remain’, the world might be forgiven for getting the impression that it is the church that speaks.

But +Nick is absolutely right that there will be a “need to pay attention to what happens when the referendum is history and a nation bitterly divided by the outcome”. Might it not therefore be worth considering what damage is potentially done to episcopal ministry (not to say the church) when a bishop talks in apocalyptic terms about the “nightmare” of leaving the EU (or, indeed, of “a nation bitterly divided”)? If we do remain, might not that bishop become an object of blame and derision? If we leave, might he or she not be somewhat diminished – especially if no “nightmare” ensues? Surely the future ministry of reconciliation is dependent at least in part on bishops who are untainted by partisan hyperbole.

To talk of a Brexit “nightmare” might be permissible in the white heat of impassioned and partisan debate, but it is not in keeping with the sort of sober, pastoral reflection many might be looking for from their bishops, and to which +Nick devotes his entire blogging ministry. If a bishop feels compelled to express a clear view on such a matter one way or another, so be it, but let it be done kindly, without anger, scorn, bitterness or partisan point-scoring; and always with the qualification that it is a personal view which he or she realises may not be shared by everyone else. This is a very Pauline disposition.

I laud and encourage bishops (and, indeed, all clergy) to engage in this EU Referendum debate: it is, for me, a matter of gospel truth, bound by notions of justice, freedom, accountability and the abuse of power. But, with enormous respect to +Nick, the Bishop of Guildford didn’t expound any “theological acumen”: he juxtaposed Brexit with the prospect of a Trump presidency. To tweet or not to tweet is a signposting choice: if the “nightmare” tweet had pointed to a developed argument of “challenging assertions or identifying questions to be asked”, that would have been more consistent with the sort of Christian leadership +Nick advocates.

Personally, I doubt that the Referendum result will precipitate a “nightmare” whatever the result; and I doubt even more that we will be “bitterly divided” by it – at least not any more so than we are already by a plethora of other political issues. Those of us who have (and express) strong views about things are apt to forget that others – perhaps most – are more neutral, uncommitted or indifferent. If, as a bishop, I felt moved to comment on an issue like the EU Referendum, I would want to strike a note of calm and considered equilibrium; and explicitly to source my reflection in gospel precepts or the Christian tradition.

No-one is suggesting that individual bishops are not entitled to a personal view on controversial matters: the issue is whether and how they express that view. If one has oversight and care of others, knowing that they will probably have sharply divergent views or convictions on some matter, a loving, careful pastor will want to avoid alienation of one group or another by expressing a flat and unambiguous preference on that matter. He or she will want to emphasise that there is integrity on both sides of the debate, and to remind his or her hearers that Christians share in Christ a unity and vocation which transcends their differences on matters of secular-political controversy.

Bishops are not secular managers who are free to engage in public debate quite separately from their ecclesial positions. The Church of England has an opportunity to set a real example in the context of the EU Referendum. Pace this blog, much of the debate so far has indeed focused on bitter claim and counter-claim, bickering and partisan point-scoring. I am utterly depressed by it. The church could, by contrast, encourage the calm, non-political reflection that might really help people to make up their minds.

In the meantime, the country awaits a bishop (just one will do) to advocate Vote Leave. I’m not holding my breath.

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