Discovering Who We Are

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service:Revelation 21


Two years ago in the Brexit referendum this country was divided between leavers and remainers. In truth few remainers believed the European Union was the fount of every blessing, while few leavers really thought Britain would finally realise its eternal destiny the moment it left the EU. Instead for both sides the issue of whether or not to remain in the EU became a touchstone for both sides about other issues closer to people’s hearts, about multiculturalism, democracy, belonging and rapid social change. I want today to take a step back from the intensity of chaos and controversy and explore what this is really all about.

Let’s start with a story that I hope is relatively uncontroversial. After the hangover of VE Day and VJ Day, Britain woke up in 1945 to find itself in a different world. The United States now sat at the head of the table, Russia glowered at it from the far end, the empire was disintegrating, Europe was half destroyed, and way had to be found to restore Germany without it yet again finding itself at war with France and Russia. For a long period it looked like the answer to almost all these questions was the European Union. Yet underlying the European Union was a vision to which Britain never adhered, a vision of full economic and eventual political union. After nearly 20 years of trying, Britain joined the EEC in 1973, but crucially Edward Heath made the case on economic grounds rather than on questions of identity.

Britain continued to see its identity largely elsewhere – as a Security Council member, in the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States, amongst the Commonwealth. Whenever critical questions of economic and political union surfaced, Britain always dragged its feet. The habit of assuming we could take the parts of Europe we wanted was most evident in the refusal to join the single currency. You may know the story of the silent monastery. After ten years a monk was invited to his first audience with the abbot and was granted two words. He said: ‘Food cold.’ Ten years later he was granted his second audience and was allowed two more words: ‘Room cold.’ After 30 years the monk was granted his third audience, and announced, ‘I’m leaving.’ ‘Good riddance,’ the abbot replied, ‘you’ve done nothing but complain ever since you’ve been here.’ That’s been the story of the Britain in Europe these last 45 years.

There’s always been a simmering discontent within Britain about membership of the European Union. Some of that has been political: many have expressed disquiet about ceding sovereignty to Brussels. There’s some irony underlying this: concern about sovereignty is greatest in England, but England, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with no political institutions of its own, is notoriously a nation without a state; a democratic deficit that seems to trouble almost no one. Some discontent has been economic: the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons was all very well so long as the EU was made up of countries of broadly similar levels of prosperity, but the entry of several former Eastern Bloc countries has upset the equilibrium and made migration a significant part of many lives, some of whom perceive it as not a gift but a threat.

Which brings us to the third element of discontent: identity. Identity invariably rests on narrative. Britain has its own narrative, somewhat different from the mainstream European Union narrative. The European narrative is that the tension between France and Germany had caused a half century of devastating war, and that the whole of Europe needed to gather round the two giants to forge a better future together, a future of economic prosperity based on free trade and on the emergence of a European entity to rival the United States, Russia, Japan and in due course India and China. Britain’s narrative is different. It’s based on a memory of being in the vanguard of the industrial revolution, and at the head of a global empire, with a corresponding mixture of duty, superiority and entitlement. Consider the song ‘Football’s coming home.’ It keys into the sense that Britain (or England) invented all the games anyway, and has patiently let the upstarts win for much too long. But in the 20 years after the Second War Britain became obsessed by the narrative of economic, political and social decline. The question for Britain became whether membership of the EU reversed that decline, by charting a new, collaborative, confident identity – or epitomised that decline by allowing the grand old country to be swallowed up by a European leviathan.

One morning about a year ago I was sitting in the green room at Broadcasting House, listening to the Today programme, waiting to offer my Thought for the Day, when I was overwhelmed by the desire to walk into the studio, set aside my carefully constructed and minutely edited script, and simply say, ‘Let’s face it everyone, Brexit may be a train crash but at least it’s done what it was originally designed to do – unite the Tory party.’ There’s no doubt that the Conservatives have been plagued by contrasting feelings on Europe for a generation, and the somewhat unexpected return of a Tory majority at the 2015 election meant that their quandary immediately became the nation’s quandary. But the civil war in the party that’s characterised the period since the triggering of Article 50 is an indication of the fact that the 52% leave vote in June 2016 was a temporary coalition of those whose opposition to EU membership was based on economic, political and identity grounds, and as soon as Article 50 was triggered and the actual future relationship had to be defined that coalition broke up into smithereens.

Christians have all kinds of political, social and economic views, but for me the central question of our time is one of identity. Britain was taken into the EEC by Edward Heath with economic arguments that hid political commitments. David Cameron chose to fight the 2016 Brexit campaign on economic arguments, just as he had the Scottish independence vote two years previously: and in both cases I believe he fought the battle on the wrong territory. The real issue in both cases was identity. In my view Remain deserved to lose the Brexit vote because it failed to describe a multicultural European vision that Britain would be in every way impoverished to leave. The trouble is the Brexiteers have had two years to identify a restored British identity it was worth all this trouble to re-establish – and towards doing so they have made no progress whatsoever.

Not long ago I walked up to the Penshaw Monument near Houghton-le-Spring, and my companion pointed out the Nissan car factory whose workers overwhelmingly voted leave, even though they knew it would likely mean the eventual closure of the factory and the loss of thousands of jobs in County Durham. They weren’t thinking about economics: they were thinking about identity. Those who were happiest the next day were glad because they’d recaptured a glimpse of an identity they’d feared was lost. Those who were saddest, and I include myself, were horrified because they didn’t recognise themselves in that identity.

Christians may have a range of views about economics and politics, but faith is fundamentally about identity. Who are we? What are our lives for? What is Britain’s future role in the world, as a small nation with a long history of punching way over its weight?

We live in a culture where such questions of ultimate purpose are seriously out of fashion. They are the territory on which the church should be very much at home, because the church has a very clear message of identity. That message is that our dignity derives from God’s longing to be in relationship with us. Our freedom derives from Christ’s cross, in which he frees us from the curse of our past, the damage we’ve inflicted and the hurt done to us. Our hope derives from Christ’s resurrection, in which he opens to us the promise and prospect of eternal life, releasing us from the prison of death. The purpose of life is therefore to exercise that freedom and build on that hope, creating communities that demonstrate the reconciliation they together make possible.

The feast of All Saints is a moment we focus on those in the history of the church whose lives have shown us the character of the holy city that we’ve just heard about in Revelation chapter 21. By describing our eternal home as a city, Revelation is telling us there will always be politics in our lives. We will always be in the business of making alliances with those we feel connected to and trying to persuade those whose differences from us lead to tension. There is no disembodied peace in which problems go away and honest dialogue is no longer required. That’s not heaven – that’s laziness. The saints show us the politics of heaven, which in this world continues to require sacrifice, courage, witness and patience. Britain never completely got Europe right, and now it’s about to embark on another chapter of how it relates to its international neighbours, near and far. Challenges and trials are sent to us to disclose who we really are and to reveal where our commitments truly lie. Only in the face of challenge do we discover gifts we never realised te Spirit was giving us. Right now the gift we as church and nation need is the grace to live with those who see the world very differently from the way we do. That grace is a fruit of the Spirit too, along with the love joy and peace we’d rather be given.

This is the territory on which we need to be having the conversation, regardless of which negotiating position the government finally settles upon. What we’re talking about is a diversity of visions of what it means to be human, what it means to join together with people who are different from ourselves, and how we can make a future together. June 23, 2016 exposed the fact that people have a variety of views on these things, far too wide in fact to be captured helpfully by a yes/no vote. But politics is about encompassing such diversity and making it fruitful, and it always has been. And so is church. We should have always known that.