The Guardian, ever the first with religious commentary, recently carried a piece by Canon Giles Fraser, in which he drew an interesting historical parallel between the Brexit movement and the Reformation.
One was a popular revolt against Roman centralism, and the other is an insurgency against Brussels and its centralism – well, you get the picture: like a lot of historical parallels, it is arresting, and even illuminating, though it breaks down on closer inspection. After all, if you are looking for a hero of national liberation, the wife-murdering, overeating, power-mad Henry VIII is perhaps not your ideal choice.
While Canon Fraser points to a perceived affinity between Brexit and Protestantism, two Cardinals, no less, Cardinal Nichols and his predecessor, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, have made it clear that they are in favour of staying in the European Union, as has the Vatican’s ‘foreign minister’, Archbishop Gallagher.
Indeed, given that he has just received the Charlemagne Prize, which is given for promoting European unity, we can assume that the Pope himself is in the Remain camp. Yet it would be a huge pity to see the Brexit debate in terms of a Protestant/Catholic divide.
It is perfectly true that Catholics, being members of a Church that predates the nation-state by many centuries, and which crosses national borders, and owing allegiance to the Pope, a supranational leader, who is infinitely more important than any national one, and loyal as we are to the Chair of Peter, the oldest institution in Europe, which will be here long after countries like Britain have disappeared – Catholics, I say, are in favour of internationalism, not nationalism.
Indeed, I would go further: nationalism is a form of heresy when taken to extremes. It is unsustainable to believe that one nation has a special mission from God, when Jesus Christ speaks of “all nations”, a phrase the appears on his lips on several occasions, most notably at the end of St Matthew’s gospel:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
The idea of a national church is absurd; and the secular nationalism that is so often bolstered by religious nationalism is not only absurd but also dangerous. This means that to be Catholic is to be firmly in favour of European co-operation. The only question that remains, though, is how we can best bring about that co-operation. We all, surely, want European harmony: the end is not in doubt, only the means.
The real question the Brexit debate should focus on is this: is the European Union the best way of ensuring European co-operation? Or is it in fact an obstacle to European mutual understanding? Put more simply, might we British have a better relationship with our European neighbours from outside the Union rather than from within it?
Canon Fraser’s article does no favours to the Brexit cause, in that by drawing a parallel between the forces that brought about the Reformation, and those who seek a future outside the Union, he seemingly forgets, or chooses not to acknowledge, that the Reformation in England (and to a large extent in Germany too) was led by Princes, and was hardly a mass popular movement.
Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth faced considerable opposition from the masses – witness the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, and the Northern Rebellion of 1569.
The Reformation was for the large part imposed on England by acts of Parliament backed up by fines, torture, imprisonment and execution for those who dissented.
The Brexit movement, by contrast, likes to see itself, in the words of the late Sir James Goldsmith, as a “rabble army”,an insurgency against the consensus imposed by the ruling class.
There have been rebel armies in this country before now – but none of them were Protestant, and the greatest of them marched under the Banner of the Five Wounds.