British Christian Responses to Brexit

Not long before Britons voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, I wrote an Anxious Bench post surveying some Christian statements about “Brexit.” Now that it’s been a week since that vote, I thought I’d share a few responses and postmortems from and about British Christians:

Father and son with Union Jack balloon
Licensed by Creative Commons (Tomek Nacho)

• Earlier surveys had predicted that practicing Christians would be the religious group most likely to support the Leave campaign. Indeed, one Conservative pollster found that 58% of Christians favored Brexit. 54% of Jewish respondents also favored Leave, while the same percentage of nonreligious voted Remain — as did large majorities of Muslims and Hindus.

• In a nice analysis of this result for Christian Today, Harry Farley pointed out that religious identity combined with other factors tending to predict a Leave vote (e.g., the average Christian tends to be disproportionately whiter and older than the average Briton). But he also took note of a particular strain of religious euroscepticism connected to American evangelicalism and especially popular among charismatic Christians who associate the EU with apocalyptic texts like Revelation 17. Peter Horrobin, for example, celebrated that “God has acted to set the UK free from the external spiritual control of the European Union.”

• Separately, evangelist David Hathaway called the EU “the fractured fulfillment of the final empire of Daniel’s vision (the feet in Daniel 2:33)” and urged Britons to “return to our Judeo/Christian heritage and resist the encroachment of secularism and false religion.”

• He didn’t appeal to the fulfillment of prophetic texts, but Catholic blogger Francis Phillips also hoped that Brexit would produce something like a “re-evangelisation” of Britain: “Now that we are leaving the EU, perhaps we in this country can remember our own Christian roots and traditions. Without them our new-found independence will prove to be a pretty poor thing in the long run.”

• Pro-life activist Peter Williams defended Brexit in part because he found it “highly problematic to be a member of a Union that has caused so many issues on the level of the right to life of unborn children, the redefinition of civil marriage, or religious freedom,” but he denied that a Leave vote represented “an endorsement of an anti-Christian politics of fear, xenophobia, and prejudice, one that rejects peace, unity, and international brotherhood.” Instead, he characterized it as “One which sees our United Kingdom as having a global vocation that goes far beyond the borders of Europe.”

Polish Social and Cultural Association in London
This Polish cultural center in London was vandalized over the weekend – Wikimedia

• But Britain’s leading Catholic bishop decried the “upsurge of racism, of hatred towards others” that followed the vote. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who had described the Catholic position on the EU as “largely supportive,” continued, “We have to say this is simply not acceptable in a humane society and it should never be provoked or promoted…. We always place our lives at the foot of the cross; in the hands of Jesus. We have an important job in defining the horizon against which we live and that is where the profound values we seek to embody really come to life: when we see ourselves living in the presence of God, living with that transcendent horizon.”

• American religion scholar Mark Silk regretted that leading Anglicans, like Justin Welby, hadn’t spoken out more forcefully in favor of Remain:

The Church of England is the original Establishment, from which references  to any and all “establishments” derive. Though traditionally called “the Tory party at prayer,” it seeks to represent the nation as a whole, and not merely to stand for the status quo. Still, given the duplicity and xenophobia of the Leave campaign, and the chaos of the aftermath, it’s hard not to feel that its leaders would have done Great Britain a service by speaking up forcefully, even prophetically, for Remain.

• But Jonathan Draper, the American-born dean of Exeter Cathedral, didn’t mince words. Referring to the aforementioned exit poll result, he tweeted, “As a Christian I am embarrassed and apologise.” Then added (alluding to the generational gap separating Leave and Remain voters): “As a nearly old person [b. 1952] I apologise for what we have done to our children and grandchildren.” On Monday he apologized “for any offence caused” and seems to have deleted the earlier tweets.

• He wasn’t the only pro-Remain Christian leader to use Twitter to cast the vote as a generational split:

• Among the theologians asked to respond by Australian commentator and editor Scott Stephens, John Milbank did “not accept this result as legitimate” and invited “all true-hearted English and Welsh people (the Scots and Irish have voted to remain) to join me in a struggle against it, in solidarity with our fellow Europeans.” I noted in my previous post that many Christians on both sides of the debate had appealed to religious history, including the English Reformation. Milbank continued to do so, in interpreting the result:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy. Unfortunately it has duped the working classes, once again to their further ruination.

Leave ballot
Licensed by Creative Commons (Mick Baker)

• Still, most senior Anglican clergy either focused on calling for post-referendum unity (as did evangelicals like Danny Webster), or were guarded in their criticism of Leave. In his response to Stephens, former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reiterated his belief that “The Christian imperative is surely to tackle fears at their root and hold up the model of a truly interdependent world in which the welfare of each is inseparable from the welfare of all, nationally and globally; the model of the Body of Christ.” But primarily he criticized both sides for having campaigned “without a clear vision of either national or international identity, reverting again and again to manipulative, irrelevant anecdotal appeals to self-interest” and called for the restoration of “genuinely educated debate” and unifying divisions “without colluding with reactive, anxiety-driven populism.”

• I’ll give the last word to a vicar from a strongly pro-Leave part of Essex, who told Church Times that

In our church at the moment we are studying the Exodus. In light of what happened last night, a rather appropriate topic. The people moved out of the place in which they had been settled for many years, they then spent some years in the wilderness of uncertainty, until finally God called them to cross the Jordan and take up residence in their appointed land.

We are leaving the EU. We are entering uncharted, perhaps even dangerous territory. But as long as we look to God to lead us, He will guide us safely to the place we should be.

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