Brexit is an extraordinary phenomenon of our time. On the one hand it is destroying the prevailing political settlement, straining the bounds of our constitutional processes and dividing communities up and down the land. On the other hand interest in politics and the goings on at Westminster has never been so high. The Parliament Channel, usually a quiet corner of the TV schedule, is recording record ratings. This must be a good thing, if we are able to harness that interest and encourage people to stay interested and participate in political life once the crisis has passed.
Brexit is not a first order issue. There is no threat of invasion or existential challenge to our country. Spring 2019 is not Spring 1940. Perhaps the absence of actual national threat and endangerment of our lives and liberty is the reason our politicians cannot find a way to come together. There is in fact not enough immediate pressure on them to produce an answer.
It is then the absence of leadership that the current crisis has exposed most starkly. A more agile, dexterous and ruthless politician than Mrs May might have been able to find a way forward, pull the country together, and make some sort of a success of a policy she does not really believe in. Earlier on in the process she could either have ramped up public preparations for No Deal Brexit, make a virtue of a necessity, mobilised the country and pressed on with gusto. Alternatively she could have tacked hard and fast towards a softer Brexit, built alliances across the Commons, looked the country in the eye and tell us having considered everything in the round a gentler and thoughtful Brexit is really what is needed. Of course neither of these things has happened and, as they say, we are where we are. It is though not just the absence of political leadership that is noticeable. Our faith leaders have been noticeably quiet.
In this country we have an Established Church, the Church of England. It is not the state church or the state’s church, but it does occupy a unique position in the state and with that unique place comes certain opportunities and responsibilities. One such is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has an inherited convening power. Above party politics an Archbishop of Canterbury nevertheless is a Parliamentarian as of right, a person recognised in the constitutional order of precedence, and has a unique ability – for a non-Royal person – to draw people together from across communities and the wider country. The question must be then why the current Archbishop of Canterbury is not doing more to provide non-party political national leadership?
In the Twentieth Century there have been two great Archbishops of Canterbury who have done this, William Temple and Robert Runcie. Temple did more than most to push the case, based on Christian principles, for the state to provide basic welfare provision for every citizen. Indeed he famously coined the phrase ‘welfare state’ in his speeches and writings, most notably in his book Christianity and Social Order. Runcie made two significant public interventions. His Falklands War Memorial Service sermon and his commissioning of the report Faith in the City. Both interventions had a profound impact at the time and left an enduring legacy. In the thirty-four years since the publication of that report none of Runcie’s three successors have managed to profoundly impact let alone change the terms of public debate and policy.
Now the country is riven by divisions which both caused and which are caused by Brexit. Political leadership by the government and Parliament is struggling to respond and adapt to the new political world which is evolving. Britain is not alone in facing seismic political change in Europe, the United States, and even notably the beginnings of the rumble of political change in Turkey. Change need not necessarily be bad or damaging and how we respond will determine how well we fair as a country and as a society. In this the Archbishop of Canterbury should have a pivotal role to play. So far he has invited us to prayer, tea and biscuits. A very good start but it is not sufficient. As the most senior non-political figure in the country we need, and expect, the Archbishop of Canterbury to do more.
Observing the divisions and ruptures across the country he should start by convening at Lambeth Palace a group of faith and civic leaders to discuss the state of the country and the challenges it faces. He should then move to commission a review of what steps need to be taken – outside of party-political considerations – what steps the nation should take to begin the work of national reconciliation and the re-discovery of a shared purpose. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, uniquely placed as he is in the life of the country, it is an historic challenge and opportunity.