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There is a place for patriotism and healthy national pride. But surely we should get nervous when British exceptionalism and nationalistic fervour get wrapped up in religious language.
One hundred days after the fateful Brexit referendum, Theresa May has announced she will launch the Great Repeal Act by April 1, 2017, thus triggering Article 50 and setting off the two-year process of leaving the European Union.
In Scotland over this weekend, I encountered a deeply divided and confused Britain, the Scots being at loggerheads with Westminster over their relationship to the EU.
South of the border, Leavers were congratulating themselves that no great disaster had befallen the UK as predicted by the Remain camp. Unusually warm sunny weather had helped to distract British holidaymakers from the gloomy prospects of the years ahead.
Another British victory in the Tour de France and a great haul of Olympic medals by British athletes in Rio had given the nation an emotional boost, wiping out the memory of England’s embarassing dismissal from the European Football Championship. In a post-truth world where feelings matter more than facts, life didn’t seem so bad after all.
Remainers were at pains to point out that Brexit hadn’t even begun. They talked of a ‘phony war’, referring to the period of comparative inaction at the beginning of World War II between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and of Norway and the Netherlands in April 1940.
In the little town of West Kilbride, I picked up a copy of The New European, self-described as the world’s first pop-up newspaper ‘to give voice to the 48%’ who voted to remain. Two weeks ago I had stumbled across this new publication in a small French town in the Dordogne(!), a revival of Robert Maxwell’s creative but short-lived The European of the 90’s. The paper offered a summary of the first 100 days of Brexit in 100 objects spread across two pages–a graphic reminder of the tensions and dissonance, mistrust and recrimination now part of British daily life.
This week, a former president of an evangelical denomination wrote to me: I am still coming to terms with the referendum result here in Britain, feeling a mixture of gloom, despondency, anger and concern not only with the decision but the attitudes it has revealed among the British nation. I am weary with the misrepresentation, not only of the EU but Europe as a whole and the lack of voices speaking out against the injustice, deceit, manipulation and ignorance, particularly among Christians.
As an example, he attached an email circulated by a well-known evangelical author and speaker endorsing a ‘prophecy’ expressing God’s favour to Britain through deliverance from the ‘forty-year pact with European nations driven by humanist values and infiltrated by Satanists’. Describing his feelings watching the Last Night of the Proms, the author had written: ‘Was it my imagination or did anyone else detect an extra (Brexit?) fervency in the patriotism that flowed out of the Albert Hall in waves and resounded from the crowds across the road and other parts of the UK?’
‘You, Britain, are like the good figs who were taken into exile before judgement fell (Jeremiah 24)’, declared the prophecy. ‘There will be great darkness and upheaval in the European institutions, but I have done this in your nation at this time to preserve you…. I have not failed to love the nation of Britain.’
Of course there is a place for patriotism and healthy national pride. But surely we should get nervous when British exceptionalism and nationalistic fervour get wrapped up in religious language! As for those ‘humanist values’, even they are missing in Theresa May’s refusal to lift a finger to help the world’s most vulnerable at the recent UN refugee summit. Compare that with Angela Merkel’s principled Christian stand to alleviate the trauma of multitudes of refugees, despite the political cost to herself.
The world now saw Britain as a cold-hearted country not pulling its weight, wrote the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, in The New European. Yielding to the xenophobia of many Leavers, the Prime Minister’s stance contradicted Britain’s historic role, he argued, as a sanctuary for the desperate, the vulnerable and the persecuted.
It also contradicted the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury who sheltered a refugee family at his headquarters in Lambeth Palace. This I heard on Wednesday in Brussels at a remarkable event called Quo Vadis Europe, sponsored by a Christian Europarliamentarian, Branislav Skripek. Held in the facilities of the Slovak Republic (currently holding the EU presidency), the conference was addressed by speakers promoting the Christian values which founding father Robert Schuman believed to be foundational for the European project.
Closing in a passionate time of worship, the event was a far cry from the caricature of the Brussels scene being circulated in some Christian circles in Britain today.