Letter From England

By Robin Ward

I write this letter as the United Kingdom continues to be convulsed by the Brexit crisis. I spent last week away from it all in an Austrian monastery with no Wifi, but six days before we are due to leave the European Union, no one is any the wiser about what is going to happen. 

The country voted by a narrow majority in a referendum to leave the Union in 2016, since when the political class, which is uniformly against leaving, has done nothing to prepare for our exit on 29th March, in the hope that the problem will go away. It hasn’t. 

The Church of England leadership reflects the attitude and instincts  of the political class entirely: only one bishop was prepared to say in public that he had voted to leave, and curiously enough the next we heard of him was that he was resigning to return to parish ministry on Dartmoor, incidentally the location of England’s bleakest prison.  

So far the only contribution to the national debate on the issue from the Archbishops has been the proposal - in all seriousness - for churches to hold tea parties in the coming week to get communities back together again.  

This did not appeal to the only British political commentator who has a real grasp on the religious implications of what will be possible after Brexit, the ‘Blue Labour’ peer Maurice Glasman, who rather splendidly told the Church Times, I’m not ready for reconciliation yet.

The complete absence of any serious social thinking from the Church of England about the future of the country after which it is named was particularly evident with the death of Lord Habgood, sometime Archbishop of York in the 1980s. 

His obituaries emphasized his intellectual qualities, national stature, and all-round weight as an Establishment man. His fellow Archbishop and old Etonian Justin Welby drew attention in a tweet to all this, in which he contrived to spell Habgood’s name wrongly.  

For North American readers who might assume that being the Established Church and having bishops in the House of Lords means that our leaders are in and out of 10 Downing Street all the time and receive their orders from the Sovereign in a weekly digest, I should say that it has been a long time since any of this mattered very much at all, and Habgood’s death reminded us how even in thirty years the national role of the Church of England has become more and more like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, to use a rather Oxford joke.

I had the great privilege of conducting the clergy retreat for the diocese of Fort Worth in January, my second ever visit to the United States. 

How inspiring it was to be with a body of clergy gathered at the call of their bishop to take part in spiritual exercises together, and to renew their commitment to priestly service in the Church. And how impressive to see them confident and resolute in the face of the sort of legal oppression that would leave us in England bereft and without resource.  

It was an inspiration to be with them, and especially to be present for Bishop Iker’s moving address on the final day, his last retreat with his clergy before retiring after a quarter of a century of exemplary service. And it was certainly I imagine the first time that the Jesuit Retreat Centre Chapel has had quite such a large image of Charles, King and Martyr, exposed for the veneration of the faithful.

But what will happen to the Royal Martyr’s realm? Perhaps we find ourselves on the cusp of fundamental change. Certainly, it seems that the populism behind the Brexit vote means that people are no longer satisfied with accepting the enforced consensus of economic and social liberalism which the institutions of the European Union and the agreement of our two decidedly decayed principal political parties preserves and propagates. 

But as the theologian and philosopher Thomas Pink has recently argued, it is very difficult to return to a political consensus on the common good, if the population no longer has the common orientation towards the Good that is given in Baptism. 

As we emerge blinking into an English future that may well look very different from that of the past forty years, perhaps the grim truth of a people without a Church might turn out to be the most fundamentally fearful thing to face.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.