The Bishops and Brexit.
Just two days ago, following the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury to (conditionally) chair a Citizens Forum on Brexit, a group of Church of England Bishops have issued an open letter on Brexit.
The statement read that the Bishops, who command a temporal realm from Newcastle to Norwich, Liverpool to Lichfield, support the Archbishop’s move to smooth the raging Brexit debate. The Bishops act, they write, ‘without prejudice for any particular outcome’ before, in the next paragraph, stating that they ‘have particular concerns about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit’.
It seems that even the Church of England cannot overcome the inexorable pull towards politicalisation that that every institution feels, and nor can it overcome getting involved in Brexit. But this letter, sadly, means the Church finds itself on either flank.
There is a growing rift in the Church of England, between the more traditional Anglican laity and the leadership, who favour a more ‘charismatic’ style of worship. This evangelicalism has gained the theological upper hand amongst bishops and more senior members of the clergy, and so Anglican services are increasingly led by evangelical ‘happy clappy’ clergyman, who favour a more modern style of liturgy. This is often regardless of what their congregation want, as the average Anglican worshipper, the wallpaper of the church, holds little truck with this style of worship. But this rift isn’t just limited to an internal church conversation regarding liturgy — it’s particularly acute when it comes to Brexit.
Post-referendum, research from LSE showed that the old adage of the Church of England being ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ was still true. 66% of Anglicans voted to leave the EU, significantly higher than the national picture and even higher than members of the Conservatives, of whom 61% voted to Leave. However, the evangelicals, who tend to be centred around London and — much like former oil executive Justin Welby — tend to form part of a metropolitan elite, with a more internationalist outlook, overwhelmingly voted remain.
Whilst the letter talks of their ‘pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England’ and their task of ‘bringing the country together for a better future’, their list of concerns could be taken straight from the ‘mission statement’ section of pretty much any anti-Brexit pressure group website. This is rather an interesting way of dealing with our national désarroi — ‘Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion’, they go on to say. Unless, presumably, you voted Leave.
The Church of England laity are hardly an obstreperous crowd, having made little noise about the gradual replacement of their favoured liturgical style. But they are also not stupid. Many church-goers, like myself, find a statement like the Bishop’s intellectually dishonest. Most are aware that Church leadership was overwhelmingly opposed to leaving in any form before the referendum, and it does not require much cognitive overhead to see this anti-No Deal statement as an attempt to use their faith as a thin veil to their opposition to Brexit.
Which is exactly what it is. The institutional insistence of the Church of England leadership in opposing a No Deal Brexit is hard to fathom, because it risks marginalising two thirds of their worshippers — a risky strategy when church attendance is wilting like spinach.
I am, tragically, my own case study. Worshippers like myself, who voted leave, feel marginalised by political cant like this. As the Bishops make clear in their statement, my views don’t coincide with Church leadership. I’d like to visit church more often but, frankly, the institutional insistence of the Church is hardly encouragement for me to do so. I find this expostulation evidence of the pack-rat mentality that sees the Church continue to roll out evangelical worship, even though it is so dreadfully unpopular, and as evidence that O’Sullivan’s law is even applicable to religious bodies.
I started proper churchgoing a few years ago, having been to a Moravian school as a child before dabbling for a time in proper, balls-out-of-the-bath Evangelicalism, then settling on good old, middle of the road anglicanism. I now attend a service about once a month — infrequent attendance is a hallmark of Church of England membership. Yet what encouragement for me to return does this statement give? Its been made quite clear that my preference for a No Deal Brexit — despite the fact it is hardly a spiritual matter. I do not imagine many Catholics professed their hopes that May’s Withdrawal Agreement would pass in confession.
I’m sure the Bishops honestly believe that speaking out against a No-Deal Brexit is one of the great theological undertakings of our age. But to most Anglican worshippers they appear to be dancing along the crumbling edge of credibility, as arrogant as a white atheist with a man bun. Justin Welby may see Citizen’s Assemblies as the Nicean Councils of the 21st Century, but many view his acceptance of the chair as part of a wider piedmont to blocking Brexit. Why, when the Church of England faces so many internal problems, would church leadership continue to underline the differences between Church leadership and laity that are causing so many fractures? With so many internal finance problems, continued issues over attendance and a generational catastrophe just ahead, why are the Bishops getting involved in politics?
A national church is necessarily a broad church. If we truly value diversity, then we must value diversity of opinion, too. There is nothing inherently immoral or un-Christian about a No-Deal Brexit — yet to see a senior clergyman admit to this would be as remarkably rare as seeing someone buy a Drifter bar. Statements like this serve to reinforce the existing gap between the Church leadership and average worshippers And if they keep hammering away at the gap, all it will do is alienate the congregation and, eventually, keep worshippers at home. Are we to turn people away from God’s Light from not being ideologically ‘of the right stuff’?