Earlier in the year, I began a short series of blog posts about Brexit and how one Christian - me! - approaches it. Some of what I said provoked a very angry response from some quarters of the Church but, by and large, those posts went unremarked. After two years plus, I guess most of us are either BOBs - Bored Of Brexit - or SOBBSITDs - Sick Of Brexit But Still In The Dark . Analysis shows that (probably) most church-going Christians voted Leave in the referendum, a wake-up call if one were needed, to those who thought that the Church was full of well-meaning liberals who would want to remain.
After the spectacle of last night in the House of Commons, we have woken up, literally and metaphorically, to the mess the country is in. This still leaves me to wonder, in the middle of this mess, is there something the Churches can or must speak into this situation? It is enough for organisations with diverse memberships, like the Church, to simply offer to pray because to say anything else would upset some or most of its members? In this context, has diversity become a barrier to prophetic ministry?
So what do I think the Methodist Church could say? Well, the first thing is to go on challenging the hate. The debate over Brexit has unleashed the kind of intemperate rhetoric that paves the way to physical violence. We have witnessed the kind of ‘dog-whistle’ politics that insinuates that an individual’s views can reliably indicate their sense of patriotism or loyalty. Expertise can be dismissed if it argues for the ‘wrong’ answer. Not that Christians are that great at ‘good disagreement’ - look at our debates over women’s ordination or same-sex relationships. But there are tools in the gospel toolkit that we might want to make available to all.
Secondly, the Methodist Church could adopt the same radical economics of its founder, John Wesley. Though he was a social Conservative, his economics were radical. He took, as his base line, the effect on the poorest and most vulnerable as the criterion by which to judge the policies and practices of the market. That led to his campaigns against the liquor trade, but because he despised alcohol, but because the use of grain in distilleries drove up the price of bread for the ordinary poor. The last letter he wrote was in opposition to the slave trade, a moral abomination to humanity. It is entirely reasonable to ask questions about how the decisions around Brexit will affect the poorest in this country and around the world, many of whom are Methodists. How will the new immigration policies, based on income, affect current and future migrants, including those who worship in our churches Sunday by Sunday? How will services to the poorest and most vulnerable in hospitals, care homes, social services, be affected by the changes? How will protections for workers on minimum wage change as a result? Will the trade deals being sought with the rest of the world be better or worse for the poorest here and there?
Then there’s the border. I have been shocked by the level of contempt with which some politicians have spoken about the British border in Ireland and the people who live on either side of it. I really thought that the Good Friday Agreement had had a more positive effect on people in Britain in terms of understanding the reasons for the conflict. Instead, the Irish government has been vilified in sections of the British press as ‘wreckers’. All I can say is that, without the EU, it would have been much more difficult to arrive at the peace agreement signed in 1998. Through funding and political support, it helped to nurture the process into life and keep it going. It is a reminder the European project was initially an attempt to cement the peace of 1945 and the Union continues to play a vital role in peace-building in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. It is of vital importance that we continue to strive for all that makes for peace.
Lastly, and most importantly, the Methodist Church is built on the idea of ‘connexion’. Fundamental to our self-understanding is that belief in the necessary interdependence that makes us human and keeps us Christian. When John Wesley said ‘There is no such thing as solitary religion’, I don’t think he was only talking about the way to be Church. Connexion is the Methodist word for ‘ubuntu’ - I am because you are. It says that striving to be independent is not a virtue especially if it uproots us from relationships that foster interdependence. Nothing I have heard in the arguments for Brexit speak of interdependence; we are seeking a place apart. Is it too naive of Methodists to argue that international relations must be based on more than national self-interest and transactional relationships? Politicians in the recent past have been mocked for advocating for an ‘ethical foreign policy’, but isn’t this the outworking of the theology of connexion on a global scale. Unless the well-being of the planet and the common good of its inhabitants is put at the heart of international affairs, then how can we expect the outcomes to be just, fair, good and loving?
I have written this in deliberately Methodist language but the same things are being said outside the Church too. An ethical Brexit is one that reduces hate, protects the poorest, secures peace and promotes the common good. If any of these conditions are not met in the short- or long-term, than I cannot see how it can be allowed to proceed.