There is a convention that clergy don’t speak out on political matters where their ‘flock’ or constituency reflect both sides of the argument. It’s a sensible one and has saved many an Archbishop from unnecessary humiliation and risking national disrespect.
Although those who lean to the Left find the temptation too hard to overcome sometimes, ignoring this convention suggests one of three things; that you think you have a hot-line to God, (not impossible but unlikely); that you believe your own personal political judgement is beyond criticism; or that you seriously disrespect your political opponents and their views.
It’s not yet clear which of these applies to the present Archbishop of Canterbury in the light of his recent speech heralding the invention of the European Union as “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Roman Empire.”
One obvious difficulty with making such a statement is that he instantly loses support, sympathy and respect from about half his own Christian community, and half of the secular community as well.
They will wonder two things. Firstly, is he exercising poor judgement as an Archbishop by wading into the political fray with the weight of his office; and secondly, for those who disagree with him, how can he be so obtuse as to ignore the merits of the arguments they support?
Of all the contested issues in a generation Brexit appears to be the worst. With few exceptions, each side seems unable or unwilling to recognise the other side’s arguments.
On the one hand there is the genius of a political, economic and international cooperation replacing three centuries of grossly destructive nationalism and economic rivalry which led to the shedding of blood on an unimaginable scale.
On the other, this has involved the shift from simple economic to complex political cooperation incorporating a democratic deficit of unacceptable proportions. And the recent history of societies that have operated with similar democratic deficits had the same outcome by a different route; the shedding of blood on an unimaginable scale.
Since none of us can foresee the future, we can’t be certain which of the two views on the European Union is the better. But they are both sensible, both moral and both matter. Each of us will have our preference and the reasons for those preferences. But it would be a foolhardy person outside the professional game of politics who staked their role, office and reputation by backing one to the exclusion of the other.
The second difficulty that arises from the Archbishop’s intervention also raises the question of competence of judgement. An alert and politically astute chaplain might had advised him on reading the text to temper his central claim that the EU was that greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of Rome, simply because it hasn’t been realised.
If he had said ‘conceived’, he might have nearly got away with it. But even then, critics would argue that any claim to the greatness of the vision was compromised by the fact that it had not been, was not going to be, and indeed for a host of reasons, could not be realised.
This isn’t the moment to list the incompetencies and incapacities of the European Union as a political project. But leave aside for a moment the contentious problems of harmonising northern and southern economies into a single currency and managing the greatest refugee crisis the world has ever known without surrendering the cultural and communal integrity of its members states. For many it fails the primary test of not even succeeding in the proper auditing of its own finances; and all this before one even touches upon the much-criticised lack of democratic accountability.
As with so much utopianism, the dividing line between dream and nightmare is problematically inaccessible.
Reading the whole of the text of the Archbishop’s speech one is left with the impression that he had difficulty managing the difference between the probity of compelling moral issues, and the problem of the inevitably flawed attempts at their political realisation.
This is a challenge that has dogged all theologians (and philosophers) who have failed to manage to maintain the essential distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven (or utopian vision) on the one hand, and the perpetually morally flawed state of humanity which makes moral vision so problematic to realise on the other.
The fear must be that the Archbishop’s own view of his role fails to adequately negotiate the complex boundaries between faith and politics.
Gavin Ashenden has worked as a Vicar, University Chaplain and lecturer, BBC broadcaster, author and newspaper columnist. He writes a regular column for the Jersey Evening Post and lives between Shropshire and Normandy. For more information, visit his website ashenden.org