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UK needs to be reimagined after EU exit, Archbishops say

Unity, hope and generosity needed during period of transition: Archbishops of Canterbury and York

The result of the EU referendum on 23 June exposed sharp differences in the UK.

By Mark Brolly

June 27 2016The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said the United Kingdom’s shock vote to leave the European Union after 43 years requires a reimagination of what it means to be the UK in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide the country’s relationships with others.

Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu said within hours of the result of the 23 June referendum being declared that the campaign had been vigorous and had caused hurt but that unity, hope and generosity were needed to overcome the period of transition and emerge confident and successful.

The referendum, in which those supporting the so-called “Brexit” won 52% of the vote, exposed sharp differences in the UK. England, apart from London and Wales supported the proposition, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. More than 30 million people voted for a turnout of 71.8%, the highest since the 1992 General Election. Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned to remain in the EU, announced his intention to resign within months, Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn faces severe challenges to his leadership, the Scottish Government is exploring a second independence referendum to enable the northern kingdom to stay in the EU and republican leaders in Northern Ireland want a referendum on leaving the UK and ending Ireland’s partition of almost 100 years.

A deep pall was cast over the last week of the referendum campaign by the murder of first-term Labour MP Jo Cox in her West Yorkshire constituency on 16 June.

The Vicar of St Peter’s Birstall, the Revd Paul Knight, said at a memorial service for Ms Cox in the town where she was killed: “Her humanity was powerful and compelling and we would do well to recognise her as an amazing example – a 21st century Good Samaritan.”

On 17 June, the chaplain to the House of Commons, the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, accompanied Mr Cameron, Mr Corbyn, and House of Commons Speaker Mr John Bercow to Birstall to lay flowers and pay tribute to the slain MP. The referendum campaign was suspended for several days after her death.

Archbishop Welby, speaking at a remembrance service for Ms Cox at St Margaret's Church Westminster after Parliament was recalled to honour her on 20 June, recalled the verse from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:4-9 that had been read and said MPs and peers “have indeed looked at and thought about is true, what is honourable, what is just, pure, pleasing, commendable and excellent”.

“We have found it summed up in a life, and that life has been worthy of praise,” he said. “We’ve heard of a life which took literally the reading that we heard first: to be liberal and ungrudging in giving. In giving of time and effort and energy, of life itself; that was both handed to the poor and needy neighbour not only in our own land, but around the world.

“In this service, and in all our hearts in the last four days, we have called out of the deep, out of the face of darkness and anger and despair and anxiety. We have called for help.

“St Paul, writing to the Philippians – a place of struggle and poverty – tells them that when there is the call for help, God is the one who brings peace. It is even possible in bereavement that peace does come: through the love of neighbour and friend and family and, in this case, around the world.

“The promise is that when all is in the hands of God, our deepest anxieties – even our anxieties about the future of our nation, about its stability and about all that makes it what it has been – even those are overcome by the peace of God, which dispels anxiety, brings hope and enables us above all, at the end of all things, to draw together in the confidence that not only our lives but our history is in the hand of God.”

In their 24 June statement after the referendum result, Archbishops Welby and Sentamu said: “The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.

“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. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

“The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.

“As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way, will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.”

Archbishop Welby said during the campaign that he would vote to remain in the EU but insisted that “in no sense do I have some divine hot line to the right answer”. “We each have to make up our own minds.”

In an article in The Mail on Sunday on 12 June, he wrote: “That choice should be made with the same ambition and vaulting idealism as those who gave so much in both wars.

“Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless, these are some of the deeply Christian principles that have shaped us. They are principles that show us at our best, as an example to other countries, as a home of freedom and democracy, as a beacon of hope that shines around a dark world. They are forward looking virtues.

“The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves. We are most human when we exist for others.”

Archbishop Welby wrote that it was clear from the debates that the EU was no longer what it used to be and needed renewed vision and major reforms; that the most probable economic effect of leaving would be negative in the short to medium term; and that immigration was a major concern for very many people that must be addressed honestly “but we must not succumb to our worst instincts”.

“There is no official Christian or church line on which way to vote. Voting is a matter for each person’s conscience. Two things are sure. Each of us should turn out and vote if we can. And after the referendum we must come together as one people to make the solution we choose work well.”

Anglican clergy on the Continent spoke about the referendum during the campaign, with the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, the Rt Revd Robert Innes, telling Church Times that leaving would affect the Church of England’s status and influence within Europe. But he added that there would be a bigger emotional impact – walking away would feel like a divorce which would be met with shock, disbelief and anger.

In the Netherlands, the Chaplain of St James’ Voorschoten, the Revd Ruan Crew, said there was some sympathy among the Dutch for British people who felt the EU had become too bureaucratic and too powerful. But he said that attitude was tempered with pragmatism.

“I would say to people don’t follow the fear agenda,” he said. “Listen to people who have experience of the front line. Part of the defining vision was peace. The Dutch have memories of bombing, invasion and occupation. Nations that trade don’t fight.”

[with ACNS]