In the heart of rural Warwickshire, a place not renowned for diversity of any kind, I had a conversation about Brexit. I know what you're thinking - it was an awkward encounter with a Brexiteer extolling the virtiues of sovereignty and finally 'taking back control'. I was preaching in a beautiful little Anglican parish church, and was engaging in the usual small talk after the service. That's when I met a lovely woman from the Netherlands, someone who married a British seviceman and moved to the UK aver fifty years ago. She had never seen the need to get a British passport and felt at home as a forces wife, moving around the country, and the world. with her husband's postings. Now she feels that the country she knew has changed around her.
She's not alone. Under the Irish Constitution, 1937, and then the Good Friday Agreement, 1998, all residents in the North of Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship. I took up that offer as soon as I could, having been convinced of the case for Irish reunification whilst a teenager. Although entitled to a British passport too, I don't feel it appropriate to take it up. Don't get me wrong - I have really enjoyed living in England for the past twenty-five years and have felt attached to the various communities I have lived in and/or served. But one of the things I loved most about England is now changing.
Since I moved here in the early 1990s, I have never felt the need to justify my place or affirm my loyalty. This was a place where my nationality was rarely asked. Now I know that my skin colour gave me enormous advantages, but even so, there was a sense of openness. That sense has been fading for some time now and last year's vote came, not as an outburst of something new but the expression of a growing (and unchecked) sentiment.
So my Dutch friend is not the only one who feels like a stranger in the land or, at least, that the land has become strange. I think it is now almost weekly that I end up in conversation with a fellow EU citizen and express our common confusion, sadness and, in some sense, rejection by the country we now call home. I am not alone in contemplating a future where I will leave Britain and seek to settle back in the European Union. As the incompetence of the British negotiators becomes clearer, that future looks more and more likely.
Of course this course of action is not done with glee, anything but. But I am sadder for the UK as it leaves the EU. One overseas friend said it felt as if Britain had voted to leave the rest of the world. I fear that the realisation that Britain's place in the world has been bolstered by EU membership and a post-Brexit UK will lose significant influence and prestige, will come too late. I fear for a country that will cut off its nose and restrict the immigration it so desperately needs to survive and service its economy. I fear that those at the bottom will pay a much heavier price for all of this than those at the top.
It's always interesting what you encounter in rural Warwickshire ...