What has Europe ever done for us? This may seem like a bit of an abstract question, but is probably the most important one we will all be asked to answer this year, in the forthcoming European Union Referendum.
Is the UK’s future inside the European Union, or outside? Do we see ourselves fundamentally as Europeans, or hold on to a vision of Great Britain ruling the waves as a free and sovereign nation? And as Christians, do we make this choice on the basis of our own narrow self-interest, or out of a larger vision of solidarity?
Is it possible to retain a specific and distinct local identity whilst being part of a greater ecumenical vision? And let we forget, the root meaning of oecumene is not about church unity but a vision of the ‘whole inhabited earth.’
So just how big is our vision of oecumene?
Do we live our lives as if we believe that our specific locality is just one part of the jigsaw of the whole inhabited earth? Or are we keener to define our identity and locality over and against the identity of others?
And just to remind us all, as citizens of the ‘United Kingdom’ we are already part of a complex patchwork of overlapping identities, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Scouse, Geordie, Yorkshire, British. Do we still want to add to that European?
As Loretta Minghella, Director of Christian Aid has written, as long ago as 1632 John Donne was onto something: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were……..’ With astonishing prescience he could have been describing the motivation of the founders of the European project more than 300 years later.
But does Europe and the European Union still matter?
I’m sure we will be bombarded by countless other competing facts and ‘factoids’ over the coming months to ‘prove’ the merits of staying or leaving. But here are a few to get started with: It’s estimated that 3.5m jobs are associated with EU membership. That’s not to say those jobs are dependent on EU membership. About half of UK exports are to other EU countries, although we are a net importer from the EU. The UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, but governments have estimated that the financial benefits of membership in terms of trade and employment outweigh this cost.
Germany accepted ten times as many asylum applications as the UK, per head of population in 2015. In fact, the UK accepted a lower proportion of asylum applications per head of population than at least 18 other EU states in 2015 – with Hungary and Sweden topping the table.
The EU, from its earliest incarnations, was established precisely to bring countries together to ensure a peaceful future, after the horrors of two world wars. Sharing some sovereignty in the cause of a common and great good was deemed a worthwhile sacrifice.
Although many churches are defined by national boundaries, our mission is as part of the universal church, and our ultimate allegiance is not to any earthly political power but to the One who has sovereignty over all. The Church of Scotland, for one, has a longstanding view that continued EU membership is in the best interests of Scotland, Britain and the EU.
Beware the siren voices who would have us reclaim a vision of a ‘Christian Europe.’
There are those, including the late Pope John Paul II who would wish to claim Europe for Christianity, and that “the Christian faith belongs, in a radical and decisive way, to the foundations of European culture.”
If the EU is to have a future, it must also be one which acknowledges and affirms the contribution of Judaism and secular humanism, and welcomes the growing presence of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and many other smaller but growing communities of conviction.
We would be kidding ourselves if we failed to recognise the scale of the challenges facing the EU and Europe more widely, in terms of ISIL, the Syrian civil war and the mass movement of migrants into Europe; the still unresolved economic tensions at the heart of the Euro, the Greek debt crisis and the scale of economic inequality within and across EU states. But razor wire and retreat into nation-state bunkers will not solve these problems.
To date, the churches have responded by – creating a blog. Reimagining Europe aims to create a space for Christian reflection and debate on Britain’s future relationship with Europe ahead of the forthcoming referendum. I’m all for dialogue and debate, but would hope that we could better than one in which three quarters of the 33 contributors to date are male and all are white. But is debate enough?
At times like this leadership really matters. Politicians, religious and community leaders have to dig deep. Are we ready to stand up for a true vision of Oecumene?