Buyer’s remorse and a second referendum

voteleaveI was in two minds for quite a while about whether to sign the (essentially misplaced) petition to change the referendum rules. In the end I decided to as a rather poor way to register my feeling that some kind of additional referendum may well be needed. However, I don’t think it’s the one this petition asks for: you can’t simply change the rules retrospectively. I think something rather different is needed.

There are plenty of indications of buyer’s remorse, not least from those who used the referendum as a protest vote, believing a vote to leave would never materialise. (I don’t minimise the many true believers who – in my view wrongly – think sovereignty is the all-consuming issue.) In fact, I suspect one of those who has buyer’s remorse, but will never be able to admit it, is Boris Johnson.

There is now quite a bit of noise of early rowing back from apparent election promises – on funding, on immigration, on free movement and trade. I suspect this too will have Farage “spitting blood” (a perennial posture). But as reality sinks in, there is a conspicuous lack of urgency about doing anything to enact what the majority voted for. Cameron, and there is every sign that the leading players in the Tory party are more than happy to acquiesce in this, has effectively imposed a three month breathing space that the markets will hate. Sadly this also creates a space for disillusion and resentment to fester unless people are clear about the commitment of government to the process.

What I suspect could yet emerge is a commitment to spell out what sort of deal HM Government believes it can go for and get. From early noises this is likely to include remaining in the single market, accepting free movement of people, and paying a reduced contribution. At the same time, the likelihood of whether the EU will welcome Scotland to stay as an independent nation could become clearer.

It might then be possible to put this whole process within the framework of a future, much more clearly delineated referendum. Unlike the one we have just endured, conducted hastily between a poorly communicated remain and a passionate but unclear deep blue water leave, this would be conducted through a period of negotiation, which included a debate about what the real future options are, and end with a vote between two clear, and clearly costed and spelt- out choices of a remain and leave package. And ideally one that will be offered to 16-18 year olds too.

If “Leave” is not going to mean what many of those who voted for it thought they were being told it meant, this is not an affront to democracy, or ignoring the will of the people. It an opportunity to deepen and refine the people’s participation in democracy, while – I hope – reducing the appeal of demagoguery. It does what many people said they wanted, but weren’t getting, a chance to decide on the facts.

Grieving for a lost country

referendum-flagsWhat I think I have been feeling all day is something akin to bereavement; grief and anger, a feeling of depression and numbness. I feel I have lost the country I thought I lived in.

I am angry that an internal party squabble has been elevated to a national meltdown by incredibly inept political judgment. David Cameron is right to resign.

Yes, there are some principled arguments to be had about what sort of Europe we belong to and how we or anyone else belongs to it. I haven’t heard those articulated by most on either side of this referendum.

Yes, there are a great many issues of dissatisfaction and disadvantage in a great swathe of the country. Sadly the Remainers seem largely to have ignored or scoffed at them.  Even more sadly the Leavers have frequently appealed to them, stoked the fires of resentment, and stirred hatred of immigrants. But most of the problems of the left-behind and the alienated have their roots in Westminster, not in Brussels. This has been a victory for demagoguery, and not democracy: appealing to base emotion not reasoned debate.

There has been ridiculously apocalyptic exaggeration from the Remain campaign, but there has been consistent and outright lying from the Leave campaign. The idea that this has been an informed, considered decision is simply wrong, witness the number of people who now say, they only voted “Leave” because they thought “Remain” would win. Essentially, it seems, they wanted the frisson of excitement that comes from feeling they had stuck it to the Man: that elite group of politicians and faceless bureaucrats conjured up as a bogey by another equally elite group.

But the dangers of stoking up this resentment is that they too have promised a world they cannot deliver. About the only immediate consequences of the vote are the resignation of the prime minister, the effective devaluation of the pound, the hint of job losses to come, and the new public acceptability of racism such as this.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 19.41.49

In fact, it is almost certainly true that Leave have triumphed by co-opting those who will suffer most from the consequences, and persuading them by piling one lie on another, that all their problems will be solved. The danger of a backlash when this turns out to be untrue is something they don’t seem to care about.

I am not ready for the well-intentioned pieties that seek to smother this grief with a spiritual comfort blanket. I do not feel comforted by saccharine affirmations that God is somehow in charge while we vote to make the world a more dangerous place, to worsen the lot of the poor, and to turn our face away from the stranger.

I don’t know where this will end. The government seem in no hurry to press the red button of article 50 withdrawal. The possibility of Scottish independence, the Irish question, London’s demand to remaining in the single market, the people who are now repenting at leisure, the idiots who only waited till after the referendum to ask “what is the EU?”, the fact (even in this post-fact society) that Nigel Farage thinks 52%-48% is a narrow enough result to need a second referendum: all these things mean that this is not yet anything like a done deal.

Somewhat like John Milbank, but without his slightly bizarre historico-theological reading of national character, I think the legitimacy of this advisory referendum is open to challenge.

Any parliament that felt its action was going to make the country worse rather than better, could not in the end take that step, I think and hope, without feeling the need to go back to the voters with a specific package proposal on the table to say what “Leave” would actually look like. Perhaps saying this is simply the denial of death that is part of grief. But I like to think that there might still be a future for us in Europe. I hope so, and I pray so, but I’m not yet able to lay aside my anger and grief, and pretend it’s all going to be all right.

Still confused about the church?

In my previous post in this series, I suggested that the nineteenth of the Thirty-Nine articles mired itself and succeeding Anglican generations in all kinds of difficulties by appearing to define the Church in terms only of a visible church, tied to city localities or congregations. This view scarcely coheres with Cranmer’s and his successor’s actual practice, which was to regard the visible church as the national church. This is implicitly reflected in the twentieth article, read alongside the actual provision of rites and ceremonies to be imposed uniformly as a nation.

Continue reading “Still confused about the church?”

What David Cameron should say to the British people

Cameron campaigning – copyright unknown
Cameron campaigning – copyright unknown

Dear Voters,

I’m sorry. I really do owe this country my most sincere apologies.

When I proposed a referendum after a renegotiation of Britain’s place in the EU, I was indulging myself in the worst kind of political vote-grubbing. I was, I will be frank, running scared from UKIP, and under a lot of pressure from some of my party colleagues who felt their seat was vulnerable to a Faragiste challenge.

In my defence I will say this. Aided and abetted by the anti-European press, especially the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express, the idea of a referendum had started to seem like an inevitable and normal part of politics. It is only now, under the awful reality of trying to conduct one, that I realise they are rare for a good reason. Far from defending parliamentary sovereignty, I’m throwing it away by calling one. Continue reading “What David Cameron should say to the British people”

Looking for the Church?

House of Peter ay Capernaum
Traditional site of Peter’s House in Capernaum, showing evidence of being converted over time into a church

Back in the day when Robert Runcie was archbishop of Canterbury, he addressed a conference of evangelical Anglicans (NEAC 1987) In that address, he challenged them to review and renew their ecclesiology. While he certainly had grounds for doing so, he might equally have challenged himself and many other Anglicans. If evangelical Anglican ecclesiology has sometimes looked non-existent, then liberal and catholic Anglican ecclesiology has tended to be promiscuous in its borrowings from the patristic period and contemporary Roman Catholicism. Much of the problem can be traced back the hopelessly inadequate nineteenth article introducing the section on the Church. Continue reading “Looking for the Church?”

All manner of thing shall be well?

love-heartThere seems to be a sense that the eighteenth of the Anglican articles stands between the preceding set on salvation, and those that follow on the Church. Its primary stress is, I think, the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour, fitting the solus Christus to what has effectively been the sola fide and sola gratia of the articles on salvation. But the rather odd description referring to “Law and Sect” may just hint at a Christocentric formulation of the maxim extra ecclesiam nulla salus – there is no salvation outside the church. Continue reading “All manner of thing shall be well?”

The unforgivable sin?

screamI have often been surprised by people I have encountered in pastoral ministry who worry that they have committed the “sin against the Holy Spirit”: a term which has stuck in their mind as a particular category of sin. It seems sometimes to particularly prey on the mind of those suffering from depression, or with other mental health issues. I’m not sure whether they’d be helped much by the sixteenth of the Anglican articles, but we need to treat this topic with some care.

Continue reading “The unforgivable sin?”

Conceiving sinlessness?

As I return to my series on the Anglican articles, I start this post on Article XV slightly baffled as to what its doing there in the first place. As far as I know (which isn’t, in all honesty, all that far, so if anyone can shed some light …) there were no significant debates about Christ’s unique state of being without sin going on at the time. The precise issue of Mary’s possible sinlessness was a relatively erudite dispute between theologians that was nowhere near being settled or presented as anything other than a pious opinion, and it’s not obvious that’s in view here either. Neither the Augsburg Confession nor the Westminster Confession have anything really comparable. Anyway, here’s the article.

XV. Of Christ alone without Sin
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

There is a rather odd conflation of texts: Hebrews 4:15 and 1 John 3:5 are clearly referred to, although the article conflates 4:15, where Jesus “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” with 2:17 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” This blurs a difference: the former refers to “being tested” and not sinning, the latter simply to sharing the same flesh and blood, with no mention of sin. Hebrews doesn’t share the view that sin is a sexually transmitted disease, and so does not conflate these two different statements. Then, linking and dominating the two explicit references is a traditional interpretation based on John (also drawing for it’s language on 1 Pet 1:19) that links Jesus to the Passover Lamb, and so transfers the physical quality of that sacrifice being without blemish into the moral quality of Jesus being without sin. It is an object lesson in the inseparability of tradition and reading.

There is not a single straightforward doctrine of original sin in Scripture, at least not one which looks like Augustine’s, and which is presupposed here. (We are back, again, to some of the problems I noticed in dealing with the article on Original Sin which began this section). For Paul, who is intriguingly ignored in this article, human sinfulness seems to be primarily (not exclusively) being under the domination of a power which frustrates not only our own desires and actions, but also God’s calling of us to a holy life. That power is perceived as having particular dominion in our mortal “flesh” – a term which characterizes this-worldly existence, both physical and moral. It is doubtful whether Paul, or any of the NT writers, conceived of some kind of hereditary sinful nature in the way that Augustine does, although it is certainly possible to see how easily some texts led to Augustine’s interpretation, once that sinful nature had been deduced (and deduced partially from the probably later practice of infant baptism). In the NT Christ’s sinlessness essentially means that he did not sin, and does not ask or answer questions about a sinful or sinless nature.

For people who, however loosely, conceive of themselves as children of the Reformation, that should stimulate possibilities of rethinking the question. If one takes Gregory Nazianzus’ maxim seriously: “What he did not assume, he did not heal” then we could well  ask whether Jesus took human nature as it is for us, flesh under the dominion of sin (in Pauline terms) in order to live out the life of God in human flesh with, as it were, one hand tied behind his back. Or does God in Jesus take a human nature that is, as it were, a pristinely rebooted disk image of God’s archetype? 

There are problems with both views, to my mind, which I think owe something to the ways in which our understanding of “human nature” is less essentialist and uniform than that of either the biblical or patristic authors. I find myself inclining more to the former, preferring to see the “rebooting” of that nature in the resurrection rather than the incarnation. It’s why, for more than any other reason, I struggle with the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (or at least most common versions thereof). I don’t think that the Son of God needs an added layer of insulation from the common run of sinful humanity.

Alternatively, of course, we could continue to rethink the question more broadly in the light of what one could almost call the pre-Augustinian consensus (and the tradition of the Eastern church), that the condition of original sin is fundamentally one of mortality before it is about morality. In which case, we might read the letter to the Hebrews rather differently from this article. In that letter’s argument it is precisely as the one who will “taste death” (Heb 2:9) for everyone that Jesus shares the temptations of his fellow mortals, but withstanding them without sin, he will be able to enter the realm of life, bearing his death not as natural consequence of his own mortality but a liberating and redeeming offering.

That doesn’t let us off the problems we have as modern thinkers with that essentialist understanding of nature. And it isn’t intended in any way to refute the main practical and pastoral thrust of the article’s doctrine, that (with St John) “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” While I’m all for the reframing of the underlying questions, I think we should remember that (whatever theoretical underpinnings we give it) original sin is the only doctrine for which we have an overabundance of empirical evidence.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)