The public sphere is full of talk of Brexit - hard, soft, chaotic, in-name-only. Yet, among the clamour, the voices of the Churches are not being drowned out because they are not there. Before and since the referendum, Churches including the Methodist Church, have been worryingly silent on one of the biggest decisions in the history of this country. Why so quiet?
The basic answer is because they are stymied by division. For decades, the call has come for the Church to 'speak out' on issues of national importance. However, that call has also usually demanded that the Church's message be univocal, unequivocal and unnuanced. The idea has stuck that that you can and must only speak with one, clear voice.
In the Brexit debate, the Methodist Church has members how voted for both sides. Many are as passionate about that decision as anyone else, though, sadly, for both sides, there has not been much theology to reflect on. But Brexit gives us a chance to ask a really serious question: How does a diverse church say anything useful?
My answer to that question comes in four challenges to the Church:
1. Acknowledge diversity - the Methodist Church is an organisation which contains a plurality of views on any number of subjects. We are also currently discussing marriage and relationships where we know we hold 'contradictory convictions', but that could also be applied to the subject of war and pacifism and even alcohol and gambling. We seem only capable of acknowledging diversity when it is non-threatening or when we have decided that it is a positive 'good'. But there is a real value, in itself, of being an organisation that does not make agreement a condition of membership.
2. Honour passionate conviction - in the midst of polarisation, the church is not called to be dispassionate. In fact, dispassion, the idea that emotions can and should be removed from an argument, is a denial of the gospel - for the incarnation means that God embraced pain and passion. We are in danger of buying into the Enlightenment's form of patriarchy, that the only proper way of disagreement involves (male) rationality over (female) emotion. Contemporary neuroscience blows that theory of gender out of the water and confirms that decision-making is at least as much an emotional process as one involving reason. The Church calls on its members to believe deeply and passionately about the gospel, and rightly so. Because having strong convictions is not a problem and should not be problematized.
3. Jettison agreement - in simple terms: success of not the same as agreement. Partly because we have come to fear emotions in debate, the Church has seen agreement (and therefore the end of debate) as a success in itself. We seem to have taken the words of Charles Wesley to heart:
E'en now we think and speak the same,
And cordially agree.
The message from peace processes around the world is that agreement is over-rated. In fact, it is more than possible to live with good disagreement, by acknowledging difference, refusing to characterise people by their views, and committing to relationship. There is a model of relationship already in existence where people can passionately disagree and yet be bound together in love - it is called 'family'.
4. Model reconciliation - reconciliation is the very heart of the gospel message but is often misunderstood by Christians. It is not a place where everyone 'forgives and forgets'; far from it. It is a place where passion and diversity are embraced and where disagreement is acknowledged. It offers relationships that are open to transformation just as individuals are open to change their minds.
One of the key things about reconciliation is that it asks the 'day after' questions. When a big decision has been made - a referendum, general election, vote in Conference - it asks how we are to live together the day after. These are questions that the British public are still wrestling with and need help to find answers. Can the Methodist Church, and others, help?