What’s on the menu when bishops gather for a Brexit breakfast at Lambeth Palace following Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union? Egg on face. Mitres in sanctimonious sermon sauce. Burnt reputations on French toast. Honeyed Brussels rhetorical waffle. Side dish for guest invitee Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church—haggis with a dash of hogwash. Breakfast includes two archbishops’ specials: a Sentamu special—sausages stuffed with pious platitudes and a Welby special: Eton mess.
This is the most momentous decision in the recent history of the United Kingdom. And the bishops get it wrong. They are on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of the demographic divide. While Labour politicians weep rivers of crocodile tears and repent of the Westminster disconnect from vast swathes of the disenfranchised electorate—poor, elderly, working class white Britons—the bishops blinded by holy blinkers—move into overdrive and flood the Twittersphere with press statements dripping with the drivel of the Anglican gospel of niceness.
Why are the bishops so intoxicated by their own rhetoric? Why do the bishops feel so comfortably warmed-up by the hot air their verbiage generates? Why are the bishops so inebriated by the exuberance of their own verbosity? At least the political elite in Westminster cocooned from reality and now cast into outer darkness is wailing and gnashing its teeth saying it must ‘listen to the people’. When will the Lambeth elite recognise that the Tower of Babel project has come a tumblin’ down and they now have to listen to the Word of God in Scripture and hear what the ‘Spirit is saying to the churches’? When will they learn to discern God’s hand in history and in what Vatican II called the ‘signs of the times’?
The bishops en bloc were entrenched in the Remain camp. While the Archbishop of York John Sentamu blundered into the debate like a matador waving his cultural Marxist red flag—the most disingenuous intervention came from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The cognoscenti of this country have come to expect wild, publicity-seeking outbursts of shotgun fire from Sentamu—like an excited little boy at a clay pigeon shooting range. With Jeeves-like subtlest of smiles and a carefully calibrated raise of the eyebrow the cognoscenti look at one another as if to say, “This is what happens when you elevate Africans or Asians to the English episcopate! No tact, old boy and all that rot.”
Sentamu’s ‘contribution’ to the debate began with an appeal to his conscience. “My conscience tells me I must vote Remain,” he said. Most people from his own voting area of York and the Northern Province of York—poor, white, working class, pensioner and even Asian voters—were precisely those whose conscience told them they must vote Leave. Sentamu went on to elevate Britain’s treaty with the EU to the status of a biblical covenant. He quoted Psalm 15:4—a blessing for one who ‘stands by his oath even to his hurt’ to argue that Britain should remain in the EU because of past treaties. Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose and the Archbishop should know that a ‘text out of context is pretext’. But then, given the decimation of biblical studies in most theological colleges, and the emphasis on sexy subjects like feminism and post-colonialism, most of the current cadre of bishops cannot exegete their way out of a paper bag. Moreover, a treaty is not a covenant. It is a contract that makes legal provisions for any country wishing to leave in the form of Article 50.
Welby took the high ground by devoutly declaring that there was no particular “correct Christian view” of the referendum. The Church of England nobly proclaimed that it would not takes sides. It even published a ‘Collect’—a prayer of political niceness—which, of course, would offend nobody. But then Welby dropped his feigned neutrality and joined hands with his fellow-Etonian, “Call me Dave.”
The chattering classes were delighted by “Wonga” Welby’s gushing torrent of Europhilia. Welby speaks fluent French and was Honorary French Consul while he was Dean of Liverpool. For five years Welby worked as an oil executive for the French oil company Elf Aquitaine based in Paris. Welby and his wife Caroline go regularly on holiday to France. He lists his hobbies as ‘most things French and sailing’. There’s nothing wrong with all this. The fact that he is one of the very few bishops who can speak a language other than English is to his credit. (Most of the bishops weren’t even taught Koine Greek or classical Hebrew at seminary—biblical languages that are compulsory during the first year at most theological colleges in India).
First, Welby appealed to universal virtues. “Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless, these are some of the deeply Christian principles that have shaped us.” ‘Duh? Who does he mean by “us”?’ replied your poor, marginalised, Northerner—fazed by Welby-speak. ‘Does he mean Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Commissioners and the 10,000 Eurocrats paid more than Dave Cameron? Or does Welby mean that we—the poor, working class, elderly, pensioners, from the North of England should be making the sacrifice and suffer for the glitterati in Brussels?’ Second, Welby attempted to co-opt Jesus into voting Remain and turn the Beatitudes into a pro-EU manifesto. In a passionate evangelistic altar call, his pal Nicky Gumbel at HTB would be proud of, Welby injected the final note of fear of the Brexit hell that would get people walking down the aisle to make a decision to Remain. The decision about which way to vote “should be about what we fear, fear is a valid emotion”, Welby said. Welby’s voting area of Canterbury bought none of this and voted in favour of Leave.
‘Fear not’ is one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the Bible. Fear mongering has been one of the major strategies used by the Remain side in the Brexit debate. The media is fuelling this fear. That the Archbishop of Canterbury stooped to play this card and frighten people by holding their future to ransom is a new low in ecclesiastical interventionism. The Bible counters fear by asking people to have faith in God.
Perhaps the bishops might consider discussing the theme of ‘faith’ over their Brexit breakfast. Perhaps the bishops might even consider inviting Jesus to join them for breakfast. This, of course, would be the same controversial Jesus who takes his stand against the religious and political establishment of his day. It might take a few hours for Jesus to get to Lambeth. That’s because Jesus would be announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God to people on the fringes of society in the deprived areas of Boston, Lincolnshire, rather than hobnobbing with the political elite in the glossy suburb of Islington, London.