This article first appeared in Itchen Valley News October 2019
October 2019. When you read this, we are either staring in the face of leaving the European Union at Halloween or something has intervened to extend the deadline or even reverse the decision to leave.
Whatever the situation, there has been a lot of pain over the last few years since the EU Referendum. Nothing that I can recall has divided us like this issue. Whatever side one takes, as soon as it is expressed someone else throws their hands up in horror; dinner parties end in conflict, brothers disagree with brothers, children with parents, husbands with wives. Some pubs insist on a ‘no Brexit discussions’ rule to avoid people coming to blows.
It is all strangely familiar to anyone who spent some of their school days studying (as I did) the English Civil War between 1642-1651. Here again, families were divided in their loyalties, either in favour of the King or Parliament. There was uproar in the House of Commons and riots in the streets of London. It became binary. Of course, they eventually came to blows. Can you imagine the horror of a battlefield, charging towards the enemy…….to see your brother facing you, sword in hand…..
It took a generation to recover. But, ultimately, we got over it. Those who fought for Parliament and those who fought for the King came together in the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. It was on the return to the country of the monarch, but with tightly controlled powers, that common sense was eventually restored and our parliamentary democracy, with its funny traditions and precedents and delicate balance between people and government was established. Interestingly, the two great political movements of the subsequent centuries, the conservatives and the radicals, or the Tories and the Whigs, derived from those two warring factions, the Cavaliers and the Puritans. They represent the two main outlooks of our political scene – the traditional and the progressive – which still dominate our politics in their different forms and under different names today.
Bishop Graham Tomlin, who was Dean of St Mellitus College (where I was trained), wrote an article in The Times recently (‘Deal or no deal, Britain must retain its quirky identity’ The Times Credo column 3rd August 2019 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/deal-or-no-deal-britain-must-retain-its-quirky-identity-hbdsbqfs9) pointing out that both sides in the Brexit debate are on to something, although the other side might not like to admit it! Bishop Graham points out that every society needs a sense of its own identity. He writes: ‘It needs to know its own story, its language, the literature its ancestors produced, its common sense of humour…the values…that make the nation….what it is’ . Without it, Bishop Graham suggests ‘people in that society start to feel rootless, shallow, lost in a modern globalized desert’. But, equally, Bishop Graham observes ‘if a society has too strong a sense of its own identity, history and distinctness, it is also in danger, because every society needs openness to other cultures, the insights of other people and their histories to avoid fossilizing, to reveal blind spots and to stimulate change. In the Bishop’s view, Leave and Remain votes were at least in part motivated by these different perspectives.
Bishop Graham encourages us to get back to the age old political and spiritual task of seeking to ‘harmonise the past and the future, identity and openness, rootedness and adventure’. Christian theologians have spent centuries seeking to hold together in tension things that often drift apart – human and divine, grace and truth, heaven and earth. In some respects, the Church of England is a model of this, with its wide range of differing views in both the clergy and the laity on the most important issues in our faith and yet an ability to come together in the Eucharist, share the same communion rail. It is in this respect a very English institution.
I would like to suggest that we all need to learn from this. We need to accept that there are different perspectives amongst our friends, neighbours and relations. It should be acceptable for those we encounter to hold differing views to us and to express them in our presence and to recognize that society as a whole must hold these differing views in tension. As our Diocesan Bishop Tim Dakin is inclined to say ‘we disagree, that’s OK isn’t it?’ We need to make sure that in Itchen Valley, at the very least, it is OK to disagree.