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Archbishop of Canterbury cautions against political mood over UK’s Brexit debate

Posted on: January 11, 2019 5:46 PM
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaks in a Brexit debate in the House of Lords this week.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken out against an increase in personal attacks and threats in the midst of the UK’s debate about its withdrawal from the European Union (EU). On 23 June 2016, voters in the UK and the island of Gibraltar voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Members of Parliament are in the middle of a heated debate over UK-EU exit deal. The deal has split political opinion in the country and if Parliament rejects it when they vote next week, there is little time for a new deal to be negotiated before the UK is due to leave the EU at midnight CET (11pm GMT) on Friday 29 March 2019.

Speaking in the House of Lords – the upper house of the UK Parliament – this week, Archbishop Justin said that “the most serious and visible aspect is the personalised nature of the threats outside the House against Members of the [House of Commons] especially, whether personally, online or by other means.

“These threats have rightly united all sides in stating that this is an attack on democracy itself. Our Christian heritage and the heritage of other faiths and non-faith traditions call for us to treat others as we would wish to be treated – the golden rule. Christ himself went on to call for love for enemies. That does not mean the absence of passionate difference but calls for respect for human dignity. That requires active leadership – politically and in security against such threats – and it must require now, not after 29 March, examples of reconciliation by public figures who have differed most profoundly during this painful process over the past two or three years. That is leadership.”

He said that the decisions made over the coming days “will not be finalised for all eternity but are a foundation for further discussion and negotiation down the line. There has to be an agreement in which all accept the need to deliver the ‘will of the people’ that was expressed in the referendum, while also recognising that when it was expressed in such a close result, there is a duty to build in compromise – an inevitability, albeit unwelcome to some.

“If not, there will be by default a no-deal Brexit. That outcome would be not only a political and practical failure but a moral one equally as serious as ignoring the result of the referendum entirely.”

He added: “A second referendum is not my preference but if Parliament fails in the task entrusted to it, then regrettably it may be required. This is about more than Brexit, and Parliament must not show itself unfit for the job. Parliamentarians must be able to look back at this time and say honestly to the people of this country that we put them, their choices, their welfare and their communities above the politics and ideology that can seem so all-consuming here in Westminster. As we embrace the challenge, which is hope-filled and exciting, of reimagining our country and its structures over the next few years and months, I hope politicians will take it upon themselves to make these crucial decisions, not only with the grand vision but with the small picture – the effect on local people, communities and businesses – in mind.”

He urged politicians to consider the needs of the most vulnerable members of the society when considering whether or not to support the deal. “The decision is rightly with Parliament and specifically with the [House of Commons], but with parliamentary sovereignty comes responsibility for the welfare of those represented and legislated for.

“We face not just practical choices but moral decisions alongside our highest responsibility to protect our poorest and most vulnerable. The burden, therefore, must be on those who believe that no deal is a reasonable option to prove that it would not have a significant negative impact on people such as those in the diocese that I serve who already face hardship.”

Archbishop Justin spoke again about the political mood in the UK when he met with the President and Vice President of the British Methodist Conference, Michaela Youngson and Bala Gnanapragasam, at Lambeth Palace. During the meeting, the three Church leaders discussed cooperation of the two churches in mission and evangelism and particularly their partnership in the Thy Kingdom Come global prayer initiative.

After the meeting, in a joint statement, the three said that: “Jesus calls us to love one another, and even to love our enemies. In this time of political turmoil we have been shocked at the anger and vitriol that has surrounded so much public discourse, personally, online and via social media. Our Christian heritage, along with other global faith and non-faith traditions, calls for us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. This does not mean the absence of passionate difference, but it does call for respect for human dignity.”

  • This article was amended on 13 January to correct a typo: the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union was on 23 June 2016, not 2017 as originally stated.