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The Europe Debate: the Place of Religion

With the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union only six weeks away, there seems to be widespread agreement that the debate thus far has generated more heat than light.  The simple Remain/Leave choice sits uncomfortably with a subject that is complex and more nuanced than mere economics.

In the discussion about Europe and the referendum, church leaders in England have done their best to be even handed in their contributions to the debate.  The assumption is that the Christian tradition has resources that can cast light on the matter and help us see some of the issues in a larger perspective.

However, a different view was taken in a piece in ‘The Tablet’ by Nicholas Boyle, emeritus Schröder Professor of German at Cambridge University, which suggested that English religion was intricately tied up with what he sees as the Europhobia rather than Euroscepticism that is driving the Leave campaign.

In short, he argued that the wish (or fantasy as he sees it) to be self-sufficient and not part of something bigger, is ‘the last redoubt of the English Reformation’.  England is unique among European nations in not having been an equal or subordinate part of some greater institution for nearly half a millennium - ever since cutting itself off from a Christendom centred upon Pope and Emperor.

Boyle deliberately speaks about England rather than Britain and in support of his argument points out that the most Europhile constituencies within the UK lie in Wales and Scotland.  Further evidence for his view is provided by the fact that whilst the Church of England is taking no formal position in the debate, the Church of Scotland and the Church of Wales have both backed Remain.

It is a salutary thought for members of the Church of England, that aspects of our religious tradition might be influencing our attitudes in ways of which we are unaware.

Of course England and the English temperament is a construct of different cultures and races as well as something that is evolving, but nevertheless there are characteristics which we can probably recognise.  English people value tradition, but don’t wish to be tied to it; they are happy to seek advice, but also want to be free to make up their own mind; they respect the rule of law, but prize the place of common sense.

These national traits (which are surely not unique) also find expression in Anglican spirituality where the church sees itself as being both Catholic and Reformed, valuing equally the place of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The habit of daily reflection, of seeking God in the everyday, both stems from and encourages this broad understanding of Revelation.

The church prefers to see authority as being dispersed rather than residing in a single place - accordingly there is an understanding of a partnership between clergy and laity that resists clericalism and authoritarianism.

Such observations might suggest that English religion ‘tips’ people away from Europe, but the point of Anglicanism is that the scope it allows for particular, local expression, is held in the much larger context of a universal faith.

The roots of our faith lie not in England, nor in English history, but in the person of Jesus, a first century Jew whose life, death and resurrection transcend time and place and can create a common universal home – not even just a European one!

Raising the place of religion thus reminds us of the Christian identity of Europe and the connections that will always be there between our island and the continent.

It is good that in Marlborough there is to be an opportunity to debate the issues of the referendum with two MEPs for the South West Dr Molly Scott Cato (Green Party) and Dr Julia Reid (UKIP). It takes place on Friday, May 27 at 7.00pm in St Peter’s Church, Marlborough. Do come along.

In the meantime there is also the chance to join a smaller discussion of the same subject at one of our Pub Theology evenings, next Tuesday, May 17 at 7.30pm at The Piano Lounge, The Parade, Marlborough.

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