After Brexit: European Unity and the Unity of the European Churches

President of the EKD Synod, Irmgard Schwaetzer (left), and the EKD’s presiding bishop, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (right), with Archbishop Justin Welby (centre).

The idea of holding an ecumenical conference to consider church relations post-Brexit was born soon after the June 2016 referendum. It was planned, with remarkable prophetic insight, for 16 November 2018. This turned out to be a very significant day – the day after Prime Minister May had commended the Withdrawal Agreement to her cabinet and two cabinet ministers had resigned. Some 60 people – academics, bishops and politicians – gathered together at Lambeth Palace to consider how we could and should continue to work together as European churches post-Brexit. Several conference members were from the German Protestant Church (EKD), and the most senior guest was The Rt. Revd. Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the EKD’s presiding bishop.

Over the course of a full day, the Conference received a series of academic papers. Ben Ryan invited us to consider the divisions within British society exposed by Brexit, suggesting that these divisions also lay latent in other European countries. Professor Arnulf von Scheliha gave a German social perspective highlighting ‘the war in people’s heads’ between the former German East and West. My former colleague Gary Wilton invited us to consider afresh the founding ideals of the EU set out by Robert Schuman. Piers Ludlow spoke of the persistent but usually unarticulated influence of Christian faith and values on the EU project. Sarah Rowland-Jones from Wales spoke of the need for us to be attentive to those outside the usual circles of Christian ecumenical discourse. Finally, a paper by the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity staff raised the question as to whether disenchantment with supra national political structures was mirrored by declining enthusiasm for formal processes of ecumenical dialogue.

During the break for lunch, I gave a 5-minute live interview for Christian Premier Radio. You can find the interview in this link – my piece is 20 minutes into the programme. In the interview I urged British politicians to think outside the Westminster bubble, taking into account national interest and to consider especially the interests of those who are most vulnerable, notably EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in mainland Europe. I was particularly keen to refute disastrous suggestions that current Brexit negotiations are some kind of re-run of Britain’s heroic resistance to European powers. To the contrary, European Institutions were created (and are still understood by many continental citizens) as a peace project designed to stop war happening again. Listening to UK debates, this crucial point is so frequently overlooked, or worse, dismissed. You have to visit Yprès, its landscape forever marked out by cemeteries of the Fallen, if you want to understand Brussels. At the same time, building a real Europe of citizens requires political – and church – leaders to close the gap between elites who govern, and the people. In so many ways, they are not currently speaking the same language. Hope is losing out to fear, not least on issues like migration, and that is being sorely tested in the EU context, as it looks towards the next European Parliament elections in less than six months’ time.

At the end of a very full day, a lot of words had been written and spoken. For me, the fact that the Conference had taken place was as important as what was said. At a critical time, friendship between the German Protestant Church and the Church of England was reaffirmed. We worshipped together. We shared communion together. We listened to each other’s anxieties and problems.

In the closing session, Dr. Bedford-Strohm strongly commended the pursuit of full communion between our two churches. Archbishop Justin responded by giving this his full support. At a time when political processes are pulling people apart, we declared together our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ and our longing to make that unity more clearly visible to the world, both for our own sake, and for the sake of a Europe which is at serious risk of division in multiple ways.

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