In a way I have never known before, Britain has become a bitterly divided country, and whatever the outcome of the General Election this week it looks like remaining polarised between those who are for Brexit, and those who are against Brexit. Passions have risen high, and respect for those with different views is in desperately short supply. Over the months I have agonised with the question, ‘How can this country ever come together again?’
This is the context in which I wish to warmly commend Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, London 2019) by Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington. Up until this point Anglican bishops have appeared to be very ‘pro-Remain’; certainly, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his public pronouncements has given the impression of being one-sided. What has been true of Anglican church leaders, seems to have been true of other church leaders too.
But here in this slim booklet of just thirty-eight pages we have a distinguished bishop giving a positive Christian challenge to a country which has been rent asunder. At £4.99, it is less than two large cups of coffee from Costa. If I were still a minister of a church, I would be tempted to give a copy to every member for Christmas (I am sure there could be a discount for a bulk order!).
Although there are no easy answers, I found Graham Tomlin’s perspectives helpful – and all the more so in that in this booklet he favours no one ‘side’ over the other. He begins by pointing out the Brexit is not the first occasion when Britain proposed breaking away from a pan-European project. Nearly 500 years ago Henry VIII declared UDI not on Brussels, but on Rome. That too was traumatic. Then too arguments raged and divisions ran deep – with lies on both sides. Tomlin goes on to say:
If we are to learn anything from our history as a nation, it should be the dangers of allowing divisions to harden into irreconcilable hostility: we have been through a civil war before.
The first step in overcoming division is to recognise that both Remainers and Leavers have a point. To quote Tomlin again:
We cannot afford to lose what makes Britain distinct and unique and quirkily itself. Neither can we pull up the drawbridge and become fortress Britain against the world, drifting into cultural superiority and racial pride. Our leaders need to get back to the age-old political task of harmonizing the past and the future, identity and openness, the local and the universal.
Tomlin believes that the ‘conundrum’ which Brexit sets involves ‘competing loves’:
How do I love my nearest and dearest, my family, those I identify with because they share my outlook on life, my values and my background – and those whose skin colour, political beliefs or circumstances may be different from mine?
The answer, of course, is the call of Jesus to love one another. On the basis of Matt 5.43-47 Tomlin argues that we need to engage in four kinds of love: love for ourselves; love for our nearest and dearest; love for our neighbour; and love for our enemy. These are not competing loves. What’s more, love is not a limited commodity: the more love is practised, the more it grows.
Finally, Tomlin lists five things badly needed if the nation is to be brought back together:
- A commitment to the long haul. It will take a long time to heal the divisions.
- A recognition of the train of truth in the position we opposed. “When all your efforts are focused on winning, you tend to be blind to other kinds of thinking”.
- A commitment (on both sides) to truth telling. “It takes discipline to resist the temptation to twist figures and fabricate facts in order to boost one’s own case”.
- A renewal of local democracy. “This would enable voices to be heard on the issues that matter to the local community and allow for regional and local differences”.
- A creation of a new unity with a common set of beliefs and practices
Nothing Tomlin says is rocket science. However, he provides a helpful basis for discussion and action not just in the church, but also in the wider community. I would love to see churches up and down the country becoming pro-active and inviting civic and political leaders to meet with them with a view to seeing what can be done locally to create a new sense of unity. In the words of Jeremiah, we are called not just to pray for our cities and communities, but also to seek their welfare (Jer 29.7).