Like a great scythe Brexit slices its way through our national life, from Parliament to the courts, the civil service to civil society, no institution or organisation, public or private, is left untouched – including the nation’s Church, the Church of England. Brexit is, and was always, much more than simply about how and who we should trade with. It is an eruption in our national life without parallel in the post-World War Two era. It has given vent to frustrations and inconsistencies with how we govern ourselves, economic inequality, social relationships, political loyalties and alignments, and above all trust in our institutions. It has unleashed a revolutionary atmosphere and is testing our dependence on shared understanding and common acceptance of hitherto unchallenged custom and convention.
For all the sound and fury Brexit is not an existential issue, as I have written before. We are faced with no existential threat to the future of the nation or our way of life. We may or may not be poorer as a result, only time will tell, but no-one’s life is threatened. As a country and as individuals we face much bigger and more substantial issues. The government’s commitment to a carbon free economy will fundamentally change and upend the economy as we know it, in our life-times. The development of Artificial Intelligence will radically alter how we work and how our relationships are conducted. Climate change is the biggest shared global challenge in modern human history. Yet it is on Brexit that we have become fixated. Maybe it is because that it is essentially a second order issue that we have permitted ourselves in our national politics and wider national debate to become so disproportionate and uncontrolled?
Into this tsunami of bitterness and divisiveness Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, marched the Church of England’s House of Bishops. The Archbishop and every single one of his episcopal colleagues issued a statement calling for the result of the 2016 referendum to be honoured and appealed for an improvement in the tone and conduct of public debate. It was a moderate and essentially innocuous statement. In terms of national media coverage the statement barely lasted one news cycle. Like a soggy rocket on a damp 5th November it went up, spluttered a bit, and fell to earth without much effect one way or the other. The most notable feature of the exercise was not so much what was said but that the Archbishop managed to corral his episcopal colleagues into agreeing the same thing all at the same time – an historic feat unprecedented in the modern era. Yet the statement unleashed a might backlash in church circles. What should concern the church however is not the backlash or what the statement said but that it was further stark evidence of just how little impact what the Bishops have to say actually has. When an historic unanimous statement by the Bishops on the biggest single national issue of the day barely scrapes the news cycle is a moment when they need to stop and reflect on why so few are listening to them.
It is true the Church of England’s leadership has struggled to find its voice and its place in this debate, but it is possible for this to be done. It was not always the case that Church of England Archbishops and Bishops were ignored. William Temple on the welfare state and Robert Runcie with Faith In The City stand as towering examples of how an Archbishop and the Church of England can use its unique place in the nation’s life to make a real and substantial difference to national debate and policy. For the Church’s Bishops to regain some authority and credibility however they need to rediscover the unique and historic place and role the church occupies in the nation’s life.
The Via Media sits at the heart of the Elizabethan Settlement and is the foundation of the Church of England as the model for a greater national unity. For over five hundred years the church has modelled a tricky balance between extremes. The problem has come in recent years when the church has become both careless with and disdainful of its own history. The increasing dependence on a form of non-specific, challenge averse, theology light Christianism fails to reconcile church factions and resonate with the nation beyond. Church of England Bishops do not generally welcome challenge are stubborn in their refusal to draw on the church’s history and its lived experience. They have become resolute in their rejection of the church’s unique gifts and take comfort in their own marginalisation.
Brexit is the most recent example but on a range of issues the Church of England needs to find a voice. To do this it needs to face up to the challenge of rebuilding a bond of trust with the nation it is called and established to serve.