Last Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addressed the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in Serbia, on the issue of continuing Christian witness in Europe. In his talk, he gives a brief overview of the history of Christianity in Europe, and makes some important observations about the role of Christian churches in the current political context. He is clear that part of our calling is to speak truth to power:
For the Church to be effective and to continue to be blessed by God, it must speak truth to the societies that it sees around it and act in a way that is consistent with the truth it speaks.
He also sees the churches as modelling a distinctive kind of community, often at odds with contemporary culture.
History would indicate, and the command of Jesus direct, that the Church is first to seek to be a holy community, based in order, in mutual love, in humility, service and hospitality. That all sounds good and harmless, but it is in fact something that runs directly contrary to much of what we see going on in Europe today.
I was less convinced by his comments on reconciliation (as I have always been) since the central theological concern of our reconciliation to God by his gracious initiative cannot easily be extended to a general task of reconciling others to one another as an activity distinct from each party being reconciled to God.
But of course no-one has really paid any attention to these comments, since all the headlines were grabbed by a brief statement—almost a throwaway line—near the end of the address:
The EU has been the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It has brought peace, prosperity, compassion for the poor and weak, purpose for the aspirational and hope for all its people.
Most of the popular reaction has been a sense of fury that, yet again, someone who is perceived to be part of the privileged elite is trampling on the views of many ordinary people and their dissatisfaction with the EU project—with the implication that to have voted to leave the EU was an obdurate rejection of the fulfilment of human hope. But there are several more serious problems with the statement, quite apart from the problem of one sentence distracting from the rest of the talk.
Adrian Hilton highlights the basic error of understanding of recent political history:
But the curious thing is that it’s the Council of Europe which the Archbishop ought to be lauding: its nations came together in 1949 – almost a decade before the EEC (now EU) – to work for peace and reconciliation, establish human rights and foster democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe now includes 47 nations and 820 million people, which is 19 (soon to be 20) more nations and 300 million (soon to be 365 million) people more people than the EU. The UK isn’t leaving the Council of Europe: we helped to forge its ethos and shape its essential Christian mission. It was Winston Churchill who dared to “peer through the mists of the future to the end of the war”, and imagine a body of sovereign European nations working together for the common good.
It is the fraternal and benevolent Council of Europe which united the Continent and “brought peace, prosperity, compassion for the poor and weak”; not the EU, as the Archbishop believes. Oh, the EU might have purloined the Council of Europe’s flag and anthem and, indeed, have established something called the European Council so that people will forever be confused by the myriad of similar labels applied to a labyrinth of bodies which appropriate the word ‘European’. But the Council of Europe is distinct from the European Union: it was the true midwife of peace and godfather of reconciliation.
He also asks the longer historical question about progress:
Forget the invention of the printing press; the harnessing of electricity; the creation of the first steam engine; the invention of telephone; the discovery of vaccines, the abolition of slavery, the invention of the internet or flying to the moon.
as did friend and fellow Synod member Prudence Dailey on social media:
Forget the Reformation, the Englightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the fall of the Iron Curtain, dramatic reductions in poverty worldwide, sanitation and disease reduction, democracy, modern medicine, life expectancy approaching 100, racial tolerance, central heating, electricity, hot and cold running water, sanitation… Nope, it’s the EU that is mankind’s greatest dream. No wonder the USA, Japan and Switzerland are such miserable, backward places to live.
These reflections remind me never to make sweeping comments about historical reality!
There are two other important practical reasons for Christian leaders to avoid making these kinds of sweeping affirmations about specific political projects. Whilst it is absolutely essential that our faith has a bearing on practical issues, including those expressed in the political realm, there is a serious pastoral danger in any Christian leader taking a position on a particular political entity, especially one as controverted as the EU in Britain today. Amongst those for whom we care, there are likely to be people will very different views on specific political issues, and if we pronounce in this way we are certain to lose the confidence of one group or another. (It is one reason why I have never felt able to join a political party—though I am aware that other clergy take a different view.)
But the other practical reason for avoiding such statement is that the EU has a very mixed success even in its own terms. I was recently visited at home by my local Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, and we had a brief but animated conversation about Brexit. She, too, seemed to have little patience for those wanting to leave, and though I voted ‘remain’, I also expressed my grave concerns about the dogmatic insistence on free movement of people, which I genuinely think is an evil, in that it inflicts serious damage to cultures and societies and yet is dogmatically insisted on as essential and non-negotiable. A recent article in the Guardian highlighted the impact on countries in the east of the EU. Romania already had serious economic, social and political problems, but
Mass emigration has only compounded the problems. One notorious example is the healthcare system: tens of thousands of Romanian health workers now practise abroad, including 3,775 for the NHS, leaving Romanians in severely understaffed and underfunded clinics.
The writer sees this as just one aspect of the wider damage that is being done.
The migrants are usually the young and active, whose energy and idealism is therefore lost to Romanian society, economy and politics. Right now, it is badly needed. Any emerging political force that is serious about improving the situation must find ways to stop this exodus. The 400,000 Romanians in the UK are a great loss for Romania, above all.
This is hardly an example of human dreams fulfilled for them, nor for Italy’s three million unemployed, or to Spain’s four million or Greece’s four million. Unemployment is more than 30% amongst Italian young people, so it is not at all surprising that anti-EU parties have recently triumphed in Italy’s election.
Quite apart from these practical, pastoral and political considerations, it seems to me that we need to do better on our theological understanding of political issues. It is a relatively welcoming-worn cliché to explore the contrast between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 when it comes to political power—but it is a contrast (or a comparison) worth revisiting.
In Romans 13, Paul (notoriously?) appears to offer almost unqualified approval of secular political power when he says:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13.1–2)
Taken at face value, and out of the wider context of the NT, these are difficult verses—and it might be unfair to speculate whether Paul regretted using these words as he awaiting his execution by beheading under Nero. But the observation that systems of government bring a certain order to society is very striking in the light of our recent experience of Iraq and Libya, where it turned out that the distorted order of a corrupt leader actually compares well with the chaos and disorder that erupts when they are toppled.
In fact, I am not sure that Paul is saying anything very different from Jesus’ words to Pilate at his trial: ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ (John 19.11). This does not lead to unqualified submission to political power, but a recognition of who is sovereign over all—and to whom all political powers must given an account. The same idea is behind Jesus’ saying about paying taxes in Matt 22.21. When he says ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’, he is not dividing the world into two spheres, the political and the spiritual, each with its own domain and demands. He is highlighting the real but limited demands made by political power, and the all-embracing and sovereign demands made by God under which the other sits.
Revelation 13 is a depiction of what happens when that goes wrong—though in fact not just chapter 13, but the whole of the Book of Revelation. Read in context, the main theme of the book is whether John’s readers will make the right choice between loyalty (‘faithful witness’) to Jesus, or to the social, political and cultural forces around which claim to offer the things only God can offer and demand the loyalty only God can command. Somewhat ironically, John is offering in his context a critique of imperial power which itself claims to offer fulfilment of all human dreams, and to bring peace, prosperity and hope to all—if only they will bow the knee to the emperor.
Within his vision report, John does include in chapter 21 a depiction of the fulfilment of all human aspiration. The vision of the New Jerusalem (like all of Revelation) is more complex and nuanced than many readers realise—though it is easy to sense its power. The chapter actually offers a five-fold completion of what has gone before.
First, it is the last of seven unnumbered visions introduced with the phrase ‘And I saw’, starting at Rev 19.11 (the phrase being repeated at 19.17, 19.19, 20.1, 20.4 and 20.11); this is the last time the phrase is used (for the rest of the vision John ‘is shown’ the city), and this section is the fullest and most complete exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ return and the end of all things, where the preceding six vision have given more partial insight. Secondly, chapter 21 offers a counterpoint and a completion to the vision from chapter 17, which the bride of the lamb forming a deliberate counterpoint to the whore of Babylon. The hope found in Jesus is a glistening jewel compared with the gaudy baubles offered by political projects. Thirdly, this final vision draws together many of the strands of hope and expectation from earlier in the book; it is this vision and hope which are to sustain John’s readers in the practical struggles they face which have been delineated in the seven messages of chapters 2 and 3, and which have been contextualised socially and theologically in the intervening chapters. Fourthly, chapter 21 draws together the fulfilment of all the diverse hopes of God’s people from earlier in the canon of Scripture, from the whole Old Testament—for example, seeing the spiritual Zion lifted up as a high mountain which draws all the nations of the earth as set out in the second part of Isaiah. But, fifthly, in completing all these hopes, the vision articulates the fulfilment of all human longings, which is why it has such wide appeal even to those who know nothing of the previous four sets of completions.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21.3–4)
For any Christian leader or disciple, this is the only place where all human dreams will be fulfilled. And it is the vision which provides the yardstick against which all human attempts to do so must be measured.
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