This is the longer version of my article in Christian Today.
There is an old Chinese curse which says ‘may you live in interesting times’! In that case Britain is truly ‘cursed at the moment! I doubt there have been such interesting times in national and political life since the end of the Second World War. Despite the majority of political parties, business leaders, academics, international political leaders, celebrities and media commentators being opposed, 52% of the 72% who voted, said yes to leaving the European Union. It is a political earthquake, and the reverberations are still being felt. Not so much in the dreaded economic collapse, which has not happened (yet), nor in any of the apocalyptic disasters which were supposed to hit us the minute we decided not to take the ‘experts’ advice; but rather in the collective hysterical meltdown that seems to have afflicted some of the middle classes and Generation Snowflake. Watching from afar it seems as though some sections of society have gone mad. The Labour party is tearing itself apart, the Far Right are playing their usual horrible racist games trying to turn the result to their own advantage, the Scottish Nationalists are marching their troops up to the top of the hill, we are told that the ‘youth’ feel betrayed (although only 25% voted to Remain) and the venom, disgust and abuse on social media especially from those who are astounded they did not get their way, leaves a nauseating taste in the mouth and a heavy burden on the heart.
So with a leadership vacuum in the nation, panic in the markets, hysteria from some of the middle classes and an emboldened racism, the Church has stepped in and provided the voice of calm, reason and tolerance, whilst speaking the truth of Christ into a nation in sore need of it. I wish! (Or perhaps it should be I pray?). Sadly the church has largely mirrored the nation. In fact this whole shambles has revealed some rather unpleasant truths about the church as a whole in the UK.
1) We are rubbish at politics – It seems as though many church leaders think that we have the right, the knowledge and the ability to use our position to advance particular political positions, which we equate with the Kingdom of God. This is across the spectrum, from liberal to evangelical, from low church to Catholic – it has been disturbing to see just how many church leaders seem to think that speaking a prophetic word means speaking a political word, even use the same political codes that the secular world use. And even more astonishing is how the Internet makes constitutional, financial and political experts of us all. ‘It’s only advisory’, ‘the Scottish Parliament has the power to block’, ‘£100 billion will be wiped of the markets’, ‘thousands will be killed in Northern Ireland’….and these are some of milder prophecies. I don’t have any problem with church leaders advocating political positions in public as private citizens (I often do it myself), but we have no right to commit our churches to those positions, nor to equate them as being part of the Christian message.
2) We have lost our sense of perspective because we have lost our sense of God – One minister declared that a second Euro referendum was now the most important thing in the world today. Really? More important than ISIS? More important than Sudan? China? The Zika virus? More important than the Good News we are supposed to be proclaiming to the poor? Isaiah tells us that the nations are ‘as a drop in the bucket’ to God. But because we have forgotten God, or rather we have equated him with our own petty visions and political opinions; we think that the politics of the EU (whether Remain or Leave) is of seismic importance to the Kingdom. I’ll tell you what is far more important, the elder who was taken to hospital, the woman in my congregation who has just given birth, the young man asking about becoming a Christian, the new convert looking for guidance and prayer. Its people that matter, not political systems. All rulers are but God’s servants. They are not God. And we are not in control. I think that one of the reasons that there has almost been a collective meltdown amongst some in the middle classes is that we are so used to getting our way, that when it doesn’t happen we don’t know how to cope. Hence the anger, rage, frustration.
That was clearly expressed in an extraordinary post from Christian commentator Jonathan Langley on the Christian Today website. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/no.i.will.not.keep.calm.and.move.on/89306.htm
In an astonishing fit of pique Jonathan declared that those who told him to calm down, seek unity and work together made him angrier than the actual result. They were ‘holier than thou, self-aggrandising claptrap’. Personally I love passion, and I love Christians being passionate about the Word of God. Is that what Jonathan was doing? No. Apparently voting Leave was emboldening racists and xenophobes, causing wars, economic collapse and fascism. Jonathan not only knows what will happen in the future, but he knows the heart so of those who voted. They were largely motivated by ‘some of the least righteous prejudices in the human heart’. Jonathan is VERY angry. And his righteous prejudices tell him it is good for him to be so. And to tell him that God is in control is like Job being comforted by his friends. And therein is where you see the loss of perspective. Job lost his children, his wealth, his status and his health. Jonathan lost a vote about being part of a political system! Granted it is more important than England losing to Iceland, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the consequences of evil in the world. Jonathan and others like him, really do need to calm down, go and lie in a dark room and take some time to pray and re-prioritise to what God says is important.
3) We are disconnected from the poor and many of the people we profess to serve. – Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willisden, not for the first time made some quite remarkable comments. “here is something deeply troubling about this divide. Since the disaster/triumph that was Thursday, with all that has followed, I haven’t met anyone in any of our churches or locality who voted Leave…….Incomprehension has become the order of the day, and we have little or no way of empathising with the other side.” What is fascinating about this is that Bishop Broadbent was suspended for making derogatory remarks about the Royals. He is also a member of the Labour party and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn as well as an evangelical leader of Spring Harvest. And yet despite these radical, right on credentials, he does not know anyone who voted Leave – despite the fact that 40% of the people of London did so. No one in his churches, no one in his locality. I suppose this could because some were scared to admit what they had done, scared of the intimidation that many have felt from furious Remainers, who regard anyone who voted Leave as being a dumb racist, but I suspect it just reflects more the class and social divide.
Because of course our middle class churches love to talk about justice for the poor, and provide soup kitchens as well as ‘radical’ theology, but they just don’t do incarnational ministry. Bishop Pete could not understand why people in areas like Sunderland could vote against the EU when they receive so much EU money. Maybe its because they are not looking for hand-outs but dignity and some degree of self-determination? The reality is that much of the church spoke out in favour of the establishment, because it is the establishment – with a spiritual coating. The people of Kensington, Chelsea, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh were overwhelmingly in favour of Remain. So apparently were the Establishment churches. (Although 58% of ordinary Christians were for Brexit!) One could argue, if one lived in these areas, that they only voted for Remain because they cared for the poor, workers rights etc and that the poor only voted for Brexit because they are a bit dumb and don’t know whats best for themselves! Most Christians would of course not explicitly argue that, but it is implicit in many of the posts I have been reading.
Bishop Broadbent lives in a different world from me. I know plenty people in my own church who voted on either side, and some I don’t know how or if they voted…and I don’t need to. Our fellowship is not based on our shared political views, but our shared faith in Christ. I believe that those who voted Remain did so in good faith having prayerfully thought about the issues. I don’t think they were dumb, ignorant or any more prejudiced than me. They had the same facts and came to a different conclusion. I didn’t agree with them, but then I could be wrong. We are all limited in terms of our omniscience! And in terms of our fellowship it is a relatively trivial issue that means ultimately nothing.
4) We are more likely to listen to the voices of social media, than we are to listen to the voice of God. Social media, like all tools, can be a great blessing. But it is also a great curse, because it permits incredible evil. The tongue is a restless poison, and the keyboard likewise. So people retweet, reblog articles and gossip that they hear which confirms their already pre-conceived bias. Take for example this horrendous picture of a Far Right demo in Newcastle post-Brexit.
Proof that Brexit has resulted in increased racism? No. The photographer wrote the following tweet, pointing out that these groups were always active in Newcastle.
There are numerous such examples of people being told half a story, putting two and two together and making five. The truth is that on all sides there is propaganda. Christians should be listening to the Word of God, not the gossip of social media. Why would that make a difference here? For a start it tells me that sin and racism are deep within the human heart. Political votes don’t cause them to happen, although they may cause them to come to the surface.
I listened to a sermon of a minister who began by admitting that he was so traumatised by the vote that he changed his sermon. Not his text. After all the text was largely irrelevant, only there to act as an illustration and back up to what he had to say, something to hang his political opinions on. His people are not being fed the Word of God; they are being fed the opinions of a man, dressed up in biblical language. What does God say about the EU? I haven’t a clue – and neither does any Christian who takes the Bible seriously. But as I am preaching through Isaiah I can see that the Lord has plenty to say about justice, poverty, mercy, sin, righteousness and the need to follow the Suffering Servant. And that is what people need to hear. Not rage or exaltation from the pulpit because of a political vote. The day I tell people how to vote on an issue about which the Bible says nothing is the day I should do a Cameron/Hodgson and resign!
5) The Church is still the salt of the earth and the light of the world – Despite all the above – and we need to recognize it. The Church of Christ is still here and still being salt and light. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said:
“As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world.”
What we need to ask is how that comes about? If what the bible says is true (and surely the Archbishops accept that basic premise!) then human beings are ‘dead in sins and trespasses’. Not mildly sick. Not a little confused. Not falling a little short of our true potential. We don’t just need to Remain with the status quo, or to Leave a particular political system. We need to be made alive. We need new birth. We need a new beginning. We need renewal, revival and reformation.
I thank the Lord that all over the country there are churches where ordinary pastors are proclaiming faithfully what the Bible says, not changing their sermons to suit the political circumstances; where ordinary Christians are faithfully seeking to serve and minister Christ to the poor, hurting and hungry; and where people from many nations, languages, classes, genders and ages are worshipping together as the Body of Christ. We are not the spiritual wings of the Conservative/Liberal/Labour/Nationalist parties. We are the Church of Jesus Christ, his body, his family, his bride, the pillar and foundation of the truth. Let us be!
Let me add a footnote here which illustrates the kind of thing that is going on…..I was recently banned from a Christian’s FB page because I did not accept that those who voted Leave were de facto racists who wanted to ban ALL Europeans from living in the UK. When I pointed out that this was not the case, I was told that the only people who could be upset at being called racists were people who were racist, and that anyone who disagreed was tribalising….the person concerned then went on to talk about how they were on the side of peace and unity and asked where were the Church leaders who were on the side of unity and moderation (they expressed the view that those who voted Leave of course could not be). They were ‘hurt’ that I did not agree with them and so I was banned. This is where we have reached in the church – where social media can be used to demonise and mock whole groups of people – yet if you dare to challenge that you are automatically ‘the enemy’. It seems to me as though far too many people are identifying the Kingdom of God and the Gospel with a particular political point of view and then find themselves emotionally committed to that view – to the extent that if you disagree with them, you are perceived as personally attacking them. It is so so sad. Is there no room left for mature debate about issues, without demonising people and personalising everything?