Making our mind up on the European Union


As with much of the wider population, many Christians remain unclear as to how they will vote in the June referendum on EU membership. Some are strongly committed to leave or to remain but most are probably still making their mind up. Sadly much of the campaign is focussed simply on claims and counter-claims about the consequences – usually narrowly economic – of leaving or whether remaining is a denial of our national sovereignty. How might Christians go about thinking through the deeper issues involved in deciding whether to stay or to go?

Returning to a Grove booklet I wrote nearly twenty years ago [writes Andrew Goddard] to revise it for the referendum campaign I was struck by how different the situation is today – the EU has almost twice as many countries in it, most of its members share a single currency which in recent years has teetered on the brink of collapse, the free movement of peoples is a much more contentious subject than it was in the 1990s. And of course above all we now each have to decide whether or not we wish to continue participating in this unique, evolving political organisation that has helped bring 70 years of peace to Europe and which we have participated in for over 40 years.

Should I stay or should I go?

In deciding how to vote it is important that we recognise that we are answering a different sort of question from that at general elections but, as there, we also need to keep front and centre the test of what it means to love our neighbours and how our vote can serve the common good. That means not deciding on the basis of what is best for me personally (usually understood in simple financial terms) or even for the UK alone but to look at our personal and national good in the context of international society and the importance of good relationships. It also means trying to step back and take in the bigger picture both historically but also in terms of the present nature and likely future development of the EU. At least three broad areas require serious Christian reflection and evaluation in discerning how to vote.

First, as regards its form, the EU is an international legal and political entity based on treaties between national governments. This means considering a Christian attitude to the role and limits of nations and national identity and the dangers of empire as well as consideration of the principle of the free movement of peoples and how it relates to our sense of belonging and place of national borders.

Second, the EU also has motives and aims which shape its ethos. Here Christians must evaluate how it has assisted in moving Europe from war to peace, whether and how it has enabled solidarity both within Europe and between Europe and the poorer parts of the world, and whether, particularly in relation to economic life, it is driven by our contemporary idols in the Western world and, through the Euro and austerity, serving or undermining human flourishing.

Finally, as the EU is best viewed as a political community it needs, from a Christian perspective, to be assessed in terms of how well it serves the pursuit of justice and whether its political structures are – or can be – representative of its 500 million people and whether they uphold the principle of subsidiarity which seeks to respect local and national governing structures and non-governmental forms of social life.

In the light of all these issues a number of arguments on both sides need to be rejected by Christians but, after exploring each of these areas, I believe it is possible to sketch out potential Christian arguments for each side of the debate focussing on these issues, often neglected in the wider political debate.

It Hurts To Go Away: A Christian Case To Remain

We should stay because the EU’s vision, shaped by Christianity, has led it to much good for its members and more widely. The proper response to difficulties in relationships is not to walk out but to work at them and influence others for the good by being present. The UK has modelled this through the EU after initially standing apart and we should persevere in that commitment. EU membership recognises the value of international co-operation and the need for many political questions to be addressed at a trans-national level. The UK and other nations benefit from our involvement in institutions working for justice. These bodies can never be as representative as local and national political structures but the EU ensures all nations are represented in its deliberations and respects their different histories and perspectives. Its commitment to subsidiarity gives a powerful basis for sustaining such distinctiveness.

To leave would diminish our input in conversations and decisions which will inevitably impact our lives and would isolate us from structures which bring us into regular political contact with our nearest neighbours. It would give credence to erroneous views, especially that national sovereignty is inviolable, and risk fuelling nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes. Voting to remain does not mean accepting the Euro or all other recent developments. Rather, it means being committed to working with our neighbours to seek our shared common good.

It’s Impossible To Stay: A Christian Case To Leave

We should leave because the EU, despite Christian elements in its vision, and past successes for example in relation to peace, is now failing and damaging members and others. It is increasingly captive to contemporary, particularly economic, idols as seen in the Euro, and is developing characteristics of an imperial project which do not adequately respect national integrity. Given its history, the UK is well able to discern and to alert the EU to these trends but attempts at reform have largely failed. Subsidiarity, for example, is honoured in word but not action as EU competences extend across so much of our lives. Particularly since the EU’s expansion, the possibility of representative political authority structures has diminished. There is even less – and far from sufficient – common identity uniting us and we should not seek to engineer or impose such an identity.

The principle of free movement of EU citizens denies the importance of our locatedness and does not do justice to distinct national identities. It is no longer enabling solidarity but increasing tensions and, as with other policies, leads to an unjustifiable preferential option for the EU rather than other, poorer, parts of the world. Brexit, though it will have costs, opens the possibility of creatively rethinking and reconfiguring this negative dynamic to enable the creation of a better situation not just for the UK but for the EU and wider world.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 18.13.11Standing Calmly at the Crossroads?: Debating and Deciding

Over coming months, Christians need to find ways of bringing a distinctive contribution to the debate in terms of both substance and style and raising more fundamental questions about the sort of common life we seek in both the UK and the EU. Above all, perhaps, they need, as the stakes are raised by politicians on both sides, to recognise that while of great significance, the decision on June 23rd concerns not an ultimate but a penultimate question. Whatever the outcome, as Ascension-tide reminds us, sovereignty ultimately lies in neither Westminster or Brussels but in the crucified and risen Christ.

Andrew Goddard’s new Grove booklet explores these issues in detail, and is supported with further information on the Grove website. It is available in electronic form (as a PDF) now, and print copies, which can be pre-ordered, will be despatched from 9th May.

It will be an excellent resource for teaching and discussion in the local church.

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11 thoughts on “Making our mind up on the European Union”

  1. Thanks for that, Ian (and Andrew), that looks like a thoughtful resource. Anything encouraging broader and more substantive reflection has to be a very good thing. The amount of time, energy and ink spent on non-issues is driving me nuts… (for example, the £8.5b net EU contribution: narrowly economic, a minute fraction of our government budget, and insignificant compared to the overall economic impact of membership, whether positive or negative).

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and balanced article, Ian. I am still making up my mind and think I might still be weighing it all up on 23rd June! I realise that I have been thinking of the ways in which we are linked with Europe geographically – we have a clear British identify, but we are also part of the continent of Europe. Also, as Christians, we have been influenced by theologians such as Luther, Barth and Bonhoeffer. I don’t know a great deal about any of these, so I’m not really in a position to expand on this, other than to say that I think that these theologians are part of our heritage. We are also linked to other European countries linguistically. We have other European languages woven into our current English usage – for instance,Latin, Greek, French, German – and there is also the historic link between Anglo-Saxon English and West Germanic.
    Overall, I seem to lean more towards ‘It hurts to go away’, but I am also trying to give consideration to the views of those who think ‘It’s impossible to stay.’
    Thank you again.

  3. By all means pray and reflect on God’s will, and by all means publish what you believe that might be. But this piece reads as well and as coherently without any mention of Christianity, no more than standard economic and sociological arguments larded with somewhat incidental allusions to Christianity.

    • Thanks for this comment Trevor – the defence is (a) the booklet and article are not trying to say what I believe God’s will to be on how to vote but to explore the different issues theologically and (b) this article is a very brief overview of the booklet (about 10 times length of this piece) where you will find – in the 3 areas outlined here as needing Christian reflection – quite a lot of Scripture and theology. Those discussions set out the basis for the two views which are summarised here as found in my concluding chapter. I see on their own in this article rather than read after the previous 3 chapters they are limited in their explicit theological content – although Christians do need to try to translate their theologically grounded convictions into language non-theologians and non-Christians can understand and we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the “standard arguments” are ones which Christians may support (although there are some standard arguments not summarised here for the simple reason that I think they are not able to be defended theologically). Hope you will buy the booklet and find there is quite a bit of theology behind the different cases Christians might advance!

  4. If I may do a small advert for a talk given by Jim Memory at Redcliffe College on this. (Scroll down for the talks in two sections and the presentation). Memory gives a history of the EU and UK relationships and then gives a grid of 5 questions for people to think through (identity, migration, freedom, democracy, and economy). He gives his own answer but this is more of an example of how to do it, rather than a lead to think his way. The talk was well recieved with a lot of positive feedback and led to good chats over a pint later on.

  5. ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’

    Another red herring for the church to pursue. Are you English? British? European? I’m American so please forgive my entry into your debate and decision. I’ve been a warden in a Church of England chaplaincy (Copenhagen, long story), so I have a little exposure.

    In favor of Brexit? It would show courage. It would demonstrate you believe who you are as a people, a nation and a culture must be protected from dilution. It would refocus your people on who you are. I believe it would strengthen the church because faith, identity and religion are linked. Brexit will be frightening for some, so a pastoral role emerges.

    Forget Brexit? You might be poorer. You might have more regulations to sell goods and services. Having been part of the CofE Europe diocese l don’t see a likely impact on the church in Europe, or its thousands of expat members.

    Will membership make you bigger or smaller? Than what? I don’t agree with my president’s view that your role in the EU makes you bigger or more important to the US. Nor agree that Brexit would focus US interest more to the EU, and less to the UK. There are these things called World War I, World War II, Normandy (my dad was there, more important his months in England beforehand), 400,000+ who we lost in those fights. In my view what makes you bigger or smaller is who’s you are.

    Jesus certainly said nothing about membership questions of the EU sort, but he said so much about pastoral care.

  6. It appears that this advice is based on logic rather than what The word of God seems to indicate. We are surely living in the last days and the Bible speaks prophetically about events during that time.I would suggest that all believers seek The Lord and decide on what He instructs them to vote in the light of what His word says. Voting the wrong way in this important issue will surely have serious if not dire consequences for us as a nation. Choose carefully and wisely.

    • Thanks William. The only problem with your comment is what Peter says in Acts 2: ‘This is that about which the prophet Joel wrote: ‘In those last days…’

      So Peter appears to think we have been living in the last days since Pentecost! And does being a Christian mean we should stop thinking about things? What happened to ‘love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and MIND’?

  7. I have definitely made my mind up on how to vote and that is Leave. I believe the experiment in Europe is leading to disaster as can be seen in the migrant crisis. 28 countries cannot make speedy decisions and you end up with a fudge. Greece and Portugal are bust. Spain and France are not good. Is Germany going to begin a new Empire? They are already talking about and beginning an EU army. Our market in Europe is diminishing and we could trade freely with the rest if the world. However, the Rev David Robertson has done more research than me and on his blog “the wee flea” he lays all this out for all to read. He starter off as a Remainer but ended as a Leaver. It’s worth a read.

  8. What is more worrying is the extremist propoganda put out by so called leave campaigners, some which are attached to the hard right.What we see a gradual scapegoating of parts of our society, in this case Muslims or those who do not agree with leaving. shades of Germany before the war scapegoat a group and use them as a basis for leaving the EU. This raises questions of nationailty or nationlisism in the sense of national; identity and moves towards more right wing approaches which even some Christians on social media are following. What is needed is proper honest debate among our fellow countrypeople and Christians because a lot is at stake and the risk is that people will vote out of fear.


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