Brexit: Multiple Choices

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a middle-England cabbie what he thought about Brexit. He responded instantly: “Well, we were only asked one question on a bit of paper, weren’t we?”

The cabbie’s pithy answer impressed on me how one simple question has plunged us into labyrinthine depths of complexity and uncertainty. The tumult in the House of Commons right now is indicative of political leaders who still seem entrenched in that binary mindset from two and a half years ago: deal or no deal; remain/leave; hard Brexit/soft Brexit. It goes with the confrontational politics that the physical layout at Westminster embodies and encourages. But the present circumstances now require the UK to move beyond a simple binary choice towards a decision involving multiple choices.

The first choice was made by the UK in June 2016 and it was to leave the EU. 52% nationwide voted ‘leave’. (I’m keenly aware that not every UK citizen in our diocese got a vote, and of those that did most voted ‘remain’).

But then there’s the second key choice. And on this there’s an impasse in Westminster, and between the UK Government and the rest of the EU:
What future relationship to the EU do you want to see? What kind of Brexit do you want? A first and negative choice has been declared, but that leaves a range of positive choices still to be decided.

There’s a huge amount at stake between ‘a deal’ and ‘no deal’, covering everything from economic prosperity to future security. It seems that very few – whether in Parliament or the country as a whole – really want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. But in his Brexit speech on 5th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly emphasised the risk that the UK could drift towards an accidental ‘no deal’ simply because Parliament cannot settle on the right kind of deal. And I am acutely conscious of the uncertainties faced by UK citizens living and working in the EU for as long as we don’t know whether there will be a deal, or not.

Where does the UK go from here? It seems to me that Parliament now needs to look closely at the range of options that could work for the UK and the EU, at least for an initial transition period. When I look across the Diocese in Europe, I see various kind of relationships between European countries and the EU. Perhaps UK politicians need to look more closely and collectively at something like a variant on the Norway or Switzerland relationship. Taking especial account of the Irish border, is there possibly some way in which the UK might still be able to preserve economic access to its largest group of trading partners via the EU single market and remain in a customs union?

At the moment, standing as it does in the European Economic Area, the UK has access to both. Meanwhile, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which the UK helped to set up in 1960, has trade agreements with nearly 30 non-EU countries. The point is that there are several degrees of separation from the EU, and there are several countries in the EU’s ‘outer orbit’. At exactly this time last year, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, illustrated what the UK’s future options could look like in relation to the EU, based on the UK’s declared ‘red lines’.

It is surely time for the UK Parliament to revisit and consider openly all the options that have been on the table for at least the last 12 months.

The clock is ticking down very fast now to 29th March 2019. Pausing or suspending Article 50 is another among our multiple choices. The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, urged the UK on Saturday to find a national consensus on Brexit. In the same way, a meeting of the House of Bishops last week wondered whether some innovative national forum driven by citizens and civil society could, alongside Parliament, help us chart a path through the immediate challenges. The UK needs to find a way forward together. The British citizens and business leaders I speak to are increasingly desperate for an end to uncertainty.

Among the multiple choices is another UK referendum, although that would certainly risk renewed divisions among the UK’s nations, people and families. The economist JK Galbraith once said that politics is about choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. The challenge for the UK’s political classes is to guide the country in choosing the least unpalatable among the multiple available options in the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours.

In a spirit of national reconciliation, the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a Statement on Brexit last week. It is very unusual for the Bishops to do something like this, and the Statement has been quite widely reported in the European press.

As the Statement says, in this Advent season ‘we pray for national unity – and for courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians.’ I used a range of BBC interviews over the weekend to get across several points. One of interviews I gave was for BBC Radio Norfolk (interview at 2hr 10 mins). The church itself now has opportunity to play a role locally and nationally in helping heal, repair and renew the body politic of a country that has been deeply scarred by the divisiveness of Brexit. Churches foster community. Churches are one of the few places that bring together all ages and backgrounds, Brexiteers and Remainers. And diocesan bishops have considerable opportunity to convene civic leaders across the divides.

The Christian faith has at its core the command to love our neighbour. As we approach Christmas, I hope our Christian communities can take a lead in living out Jesus’s teaching on behalf of our wider societies.

Meanwhile, I encourage us all to pray the prayer written in the context of the UK’s deepening political crisis by the Archbishop of York:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.
Amen.

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St. Paul’s Tervuren at 30

At Christmastime 1988, the Reverend Stephen Seamer was sent out by Holy Trinity Brussels to plant a church in the suburb of Tervuren, east of Brussels city. The venue was carefully researched, a team of church planters was assembled, the local population was leafleted, the opening carol service was advertised, and the doors were opened. But nobody could have dared to believe that there would be 400 people in the congregation. The church was packed to capacity, there were people crouching in the doorways and even gathering outside in the churchyard. Stephen Seamer described it as a miracle, and it is said that he was reduced to tears. St. Paul’s English-speaking church was born. And seldom has a new church begun in such a dramatic way.

Stephen ministered at St. Paul’s for 10 years and under his leadership St. Paul’s became an independent chaplaincy in 1993. He was followed by Stuart Robinson. Stuart was a charismatic leader who stayed just three years before being made Bishop of Canberra. Stuart was succeeded by Hugh Cox, a lovely, gentle and wise Australian who welcomed me to Brussels 13 years ago. In his turn, Hugh was succeeded by a third Australian, Chris Edwards, whose daughter fell in love with and married the Swedish intern working at Holy Trinity. So the Edwards family was divided between northern and southern hemispheres. And after that, Chris said to me, ‘Robert, make sure St. Paul’s doesn’t appoint any more Australians!’ That advice was taken. And who could be more English than the current incumbent Simon Tyndall, distant descendant of the William Tyndale who produced most of our English King James Bible.

30 years after its foundation, St Paul’s remains a thriving church – perhaps a slightly older community, with longer stayers, more national diversity and a much wider geographical catchment area. And it was a great personal pleasure for me to celebrate the past history and present life of St. Paul’s on its 30th birthday.

The present faith of St. Paul’s is embodied in the 8 candidates I had the honour of confirming: Hannah, Anna, Tanya, Nita, Emma, Emma, Rutger and Benjamin.

One church member who can trace the whole of the 30 years of St. Paul’s history is Patrick Lambert. He goes back to the second Sunday of St. Paul’s existence. Patrick is a retired senior member of staff of the European Commission and a much respected elder statesman of the community. It was a joy for me to licence Patrick as a Reader and to commission him for the work of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.

A 30th birthday is the opportunity to invite back old friends. The Revd. Sarah Williams had a wonderful ministry with children over many years in Tervuren as well as on ICS Chaplains and Families conferences. She left Tervuren to become a vicar in Romney Marsh, in Kent. She is now retired and returned for the celebration with her husband Rocyn.

In the beginning, St. Paul’s met in the Roman Catholic church of St. Paul’s Vossem (hence the name). But it soon moved to the British School of Brussels, where the classrooms provide lots of space for the church’s extensive children’s ministry. After worship, the school cafeteria is quickly transformed from a chapel into a dining room. So we enjoyed a festive meal together.

I am thankful for this thriving, diverse and lively church community, and for its clergy Simon and Nathan. Advent is a season of hope, and there is much to hope for in the present and future of St. Paul’s Tervuren.

Brexit: Prayer for the UK Parliament

After much prayerful consideration, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has written a special prayer which he is encouraging everyone to use ahead of a Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament. The vote in the House of Commons was scheduled for Tuesday, but has now been deferred.

Whatever the timing of the vote, this is a period of uncertainty and we should continue to pray for the work of all members of Parliament.

The Archbishop’s prayer reads:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.
Amen.

Les Gilets Jaunes

Archdeacon of France, The Ven Meurig Williams, writes here about the current protests by the Gilets Jaunes as a vital part of France’s history and traditions.


The widespread media coverage of the protests mounted by Gilets Jaunes in France, mainly in response to proposed tax rises on fuel, are causing heightened anxiety across France and elsewhere in Europe.

Those of us who have the privilege of living and working in France, and who value its distinctive culture and identity, know that protests such as those by Gilets Jaunes are a vital part of France’s democratic history and traditions. Frustration and anger, as well as delight, have always been voiced publicly, and often in the streets. Public protests are nothing new. The fact that most of them happen regularly, without widespread conflict and injury, is a sign of how mature a society France is. We know that these protests are voicing genuine concerns, not least for the socially disadvantaged. The overwhelming majority of demonstrations by Gilets Jaunes pose no threat to life and liberty. But there is escalating concern at the degree to which some protests are becoming infiltrated by groups whose intentions are aggressive and divisive. More so when school pupils have become involved in the violence and destruction.

The Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Michel Aupetit, has spoken of French values: how fraternity has an equal place with freedom and equality, appealing for dialogue and the renewal of society. Our Anglican communities in France echo his words. We join our prayers with all our ecumenical partners at this anxious time, when peoples’ safety, and the stability of civil society, is at risk.

In this Advent season, Christians pray that we may be awake and alert, reading the signs of the times with faithfulness and insight, as we joyfully prepare for the birth of the Prince of Peace. We pray for France: its Government, its people, and its future flourishing. As Anglicans, we are ready to do whatever we can, working with all people of goodwill, for the common good of the French nation.

– Meurig Williams