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Rev Richard Coles: Brexiteers and Remainers alike could learn from the life of Jesus

“Now is the time to come together,” said Theresa May at the despatch box on 29 March. But how? Britain is more divided than I have ever known it, if my Facebook feed, lively with debate, is anything to go by. As I look at it, I keep hearing that mysterious sound in Act II of The Cherry Orchard, of something turning and twisting and tightening to breaking point. At first, I attributed it to tinnitus, the enduring legacy of my pop career, but now I wonder if others hear it, too, in exchanges between Remainers and Leavers – especially those happening in unlikely places and testing untested loyalties.

The Church, particularly the Church of England, with its historic commitment to the via media (“middle way”), has rich experience in seeking to bridge irreconcilable differences. The first Christians were formed by the first Easter into a new community that transcended all other commitments, encompassing the tax collector Matthew, a lackey of the occupying Romans, and Simon the Zealot, an insurrectionist.

Two millennia later, the Church of England, which has a kind of ecclesiastical personality disorder, is obliged to seek breadth. It is a Church of the Reformation that retains its Catholic character, with thrash-metal-loving, wifi-enabled congregations which believe that the world is about six thousand years old next door to congregations singing Renaissance polyphony amid clouds of incense. A church of such conflicting views that can hold together for almost half a millennium should have something to offer the wider divided world.

You might think so, but we are fully occupied holding together our own irreconcilable differences. Here are two examples. After decades of wrangling and compromises extracted like wisdom teeth without anaesthetic, the Church of England voted in 2014 to allow women to be ordained not only as deacons and priests but also as bishops. Trying to explain why the Church found this so hard to a generation that has grown up finding women’s leadership not even noteworthy (let alone controversial) is increasingly difficult, if you found the change necessary. And opposing it is ever less defensible.

Philip North, widely acknowledged as a fine priest and bishop, was nominated to be the next bishop of Sheffield, a post with a special responsibility for all of the priests in the diocese – including women, whose priesthood he finds doubtful because he questions the validity of their ordination. A compromise that ensured the passage of the legislation allowing women to become bishops guaranteed the “mutual flourishing” of both sides of the argument. After intense protest against his appointment, Bishop North decided not to accept the nomination. Whatever you make of this, no one would dispute that the promise of “mutual flourishing” was premature.

A recent document pledged just as gushingly to “affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church”, while ruling out any change to the status quo regarding same-sex relationships. It came out of a process in which those of us who are working towards a change engaged with those who cannot countenance it, in the hope of finding some sort of compromise that would, we hoped, allow at least a move towards greater inclusion. What we got was language that said one thing and action that said another. The General Synod responded by declining to “take note” of the document.

I was not surprised that we failed to make a breakthrough in the Church’s position on same-sex relationships, nor was I surprised that the agreement providing for a bishop who does not ordain women to be given charge of a diocese failed. The effort to reconcile the irreconcilable is sometimes more difficult and painful than the compromises achieved in Synod allow.

The most difficult and painful experience I have had of division was at theological college – an enclosed and febrile place where disagreements about the butter knife could suddenly become gladiatorial. Our disagreements were over more fundamental issues, and they grew so intense that I once spent the night in a tent in freezing weather because I could not bear to be under the same roof as some of my brethren (I know that some of them found me no more bearable). At the darkest hour, I sat in the echoing church at evensong as a monk read the New Testament lesson from the second chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, in which the writer speaks of Jesus Christ reconciling the irreconcilable, making “one new humanity from the two” at the cost of His death on the cross. Something sparked.

Jesus comes among us, in our all division, not to instruct, comfort or inspire but to die. In doing so, He answers the sum of our self-regard, stupidity and cruelty. On the other side of the cross, self-regard, stupidity, cruelty and their associated powers are spent, and we look beyond to see a new day rising and the possibility of life transformed.

Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, we meet outside the church where a new fire is burning. From it, we light the great Easter candle, which the deacon carries into the church, bare and empty and dark, symbolising the tomb in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. The deacon sings, “The light of Christ!” We respond, “Thanks be to God!” and, one by one, light our candles, anticipating the dawn breaking outside at the edge of night on an undiscovered country where divisions are not glossed, or dodged, or reconciled, but left behind.

Richard Coles’s “Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years As a Priest” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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