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Posted on Thu 1 November 2018

Wanted: a post-Brexit vision of national life

With Brexit looming over the horizon, we are, as a nation, at a watershed in our long and varied story. Europe too is at a crossroads: the rising tide of immigration, problems with the euro and the resistance of a growing number of member states to the Franco-German federalising project are all contributing to the sense that the future of Europe is also at a turning point.

In these circumstances, it is entirely understandable that people are asking probing questions about identity, nationhood and the effects of large-scale immigration on how they perceive themselves. The liberal elite cannot just dismiss this as unsophisticated populism. It is of huge importance, however, that in this critical situation, we should not give in to knee-jerk reactions and to quick-fix nostrums either. If the question is not to be answered merely in terms of race or ethnicity, we must be able to say what it means to be British or, for that matter, European, that goes beyond these limited ways of understanding our identity. In every way, we need to be aware of Europe’s not- so-distant past and steer away from those temptations that led to the tragedy of fascism — a tragedy, please God, never to be repeated.

This means that the questions about national or European identity must be answered in terms of ideas, ways of viewing the world, intellectual and material culture and, of course, moral values. Such an answer cannot be given without reference to the wide Judaeo-Christian tradition which has formed not only our worldview but also our estimate of the human person, of an open and developing future (rather than the eternal cycles of ancient religions), and a sense of purpose and direction. It has given rise to the finest literature and art so that the critic George Steiner can say that everything in Europe’s art and literature is about the presence or absence of God. If so, it is because our language and our disciplines have been formed by the world view of the Bible. Even those who reject such a world view have it as their frame of reference.

Both Britain and Europe have emerged, in different ways, as civilisations based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, along with what Pope Benedict has called “purified” Hellenism mediated by Christianity and the influence of Justinian’s Christianised Roman law. It is true that the island and the continent developed differently: on the continent, a Christianised civilisation and a sense of identity emerged either out of the centralising tendencies of the Holy Roman Empire or in the fiercely independent city states like Venice or Geneva. In England, at any rate, there was an early consciousness of national identity, seen in the emergence of Parliament, a strong monarchy and the desire, even before the Reformation, to limit outside (e.g. Papal) influence over national life, taking shape already from the 13th century onwards. One picture could sum up the difference: in Europe the Poor Laws were mainly city-based, whereas England has had a National Poor Law since Tudor times.

There is, of course, an intimate link between the continent and the island which goes well beyond the present European project and which will not be broken by Brexit. Being European does not necessarily mean being members of the European Union. It is important, however, to note the different ways in which the two areas have developed and this may well be crucial for the future as well. While the early architects of the European Economic Community worked with a Christian vision, it is worth remembering that the abortive “Constitution for Europe” refused to recognise the importance of the Judaeo-Christian contribution to European civilisation. Britain must not give in to this temptation, even if it is urged on by various sirens on left and right to do so.

Our national life has its origins in King Alfred the Great’s efforts in bringing together the diverse peoples in his nascent kingdom by taking account of their culture and customs but also by unifying them around the Christian faith and the values arising from it. His development of a common law for them was based on the Ten Commandments and Our Lord’s summary of them. This is recognised still at the highest levels in our judiciary. Values do not arise out of thin air. They are grounded in a world view and in our case, for better or for worse, this is the Judaeo-Christian world view. The inalienable dignity of the person, and the protection that comes from this recognition, arises from the biblical teaching that we are each made in God’s image. Equality of persons, similarly, is based on Jewish and Christian teaching about our common origins. Respect for conscience, the importance of consent and the rule of law for ruler and ruled alike have arisen from Christian reflection on the importance of being made in God’s image. Liberty and liberation are central themes in the Bible and have been reclaimed, time and again, after they have been negated by tyrants, both ecclesiastical and civil. The moderate Enlightenment (as opposed to the Terror of Robespierre) also based its view of the person on the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the imago dei. John Locke is a good English example of such thinking about persons and their inalienable rights, however mixed his actual record about the natural rights of native Americans in the colonies may have been. Even before him, the Puritans, who were victims of religious conformity, were arguing for religious freedom.

At this time of Brexit and an enhanced sense of nationhood, we should remember that our fundamental values are the result of a specific history which deserves recognition and celebration rather than neglect and embarrassment. Not every faith or philosophical tradition will produce the same values. Some will emphasise social solidarity over personal freedom, others may deny the very existence of the self rather than according it fundamental rights and yet others may value honour and saving face over service, selflessness and sacrifice.

One of our recent tragedies has been that Britain began to be more diverse at the very time when it was also losing its Christian discourse. This meant that instead of a Christian welcome, hospitality and engagement, we invented multiculturalism. Such a view was based on merely respecting difference and providing for it rather than seeking to integrate the diversity within a Christian framework to which everyone would have been welcome to contribute and to enrich. The result has been segregated communities and individuals who can be prey to radicalisation and extremism. We need now a clear commitment to nationhood which involves integration (but not assimilation), a lingua franca so we can communicate with one another and educational and social mobility to prevent ghettoisation.

In itself, secularism cannot provide the justification for the “thick” values of inalienable dignity, equality, liberty and the safety of vital social institutions. It can only assert them or mutate them into something different. Thus the dignity of persons in relation becomes mere autonomy, equality of persons becomes claims for the equal treatment of all kinds of lifestyle or behaviour and liberty can become just the libertarianism “of anything goes”. If we are to move beyond the crude utilitarianism of the day and the making of moral decisions by opinion poll or focus groups, we must have recourse to ultimate explanations which are not just descriptions of this or that state of affairs. Some of the so-called British values, like the freedom of the person, need justification in terms of a transcendental tradition or they may need challenging from the point of view of such a tradition. For example, in opposing unjust laws that inhibit the exercise of conscience or even in pointing out the insufficiency of democracy in protecting minorities of various kinds. That is why acknowledging the importance of the person has led to Bills of Rights to protect people even when they are a minority.

I should make clear that my plea for the centrality of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in national life is not necessarily to argue for an established church. This may be one way of expressing such centrality but it is not the only one. The importance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition for informing legislation and policy is such that its place in our national life should not depend on an established church. Nor should it be seen as excluding the contribution of people of other faiths and of none. It should be seen rather as a framework for discussion and as a point of departure when new questions have to be addressed by the nation.

Post-Brexit, we need a clear moral and spiritual framework for our life together. In recent years, we have tried a number of exotic remedies for our national ills. They have not worked. Leaving a vacuum in these areas is also very dangerous as something very undesirable could fill it. Is it time to recover what has been tried and tested in times of ease but also of privation and suffering? What was it that gave comfort and consolation to those who lost loved ones in the First and Second World Wars? For what vision of national life were people willing to sacrifice their future? Whatever else it may have been, it was certainly a consciousness of a shared past based on common beliefs and values and all that has arisen from them. We must nail, once and for all, the lie that secularism is somehow neutral. It is not. However attenuated, it is also a way of viewing the world and the human condition. The most it has done, however, is either to parody the Christian tradition or to capitulate to every demand for instant self-gratification from the surrounding culture. Can it provide the substantial values we need to rediscover our national identity? I don’t think so, but our shared Judaeo-Christian past, taking account of mistakes, wrong turnings and tragedies, can. It is to this we must turn for a renewed vision of national life.

This article was first publised in the November edition of Standpoint Magazine and can be accessed here