EU or not EU?

I have always instinctively felt that belonging to the European Union is a good thing. This has nothing to do with the concessions David Cameron has succeeded in dragging out of the other heads of Government. They are unlikely to convince anyone, and frankly are a sham – a sop to the Tory Eurosceptics, so that he can claim we can be part of a “reformed European Union”. He may have won a few over, but with Boris and Michael Gove still for coming out, the effort has failed, and has even backfired, as its superficiality has become apparent.

Nationalism lay behind the great conflicts of the twentieth century. The significance of the nation state may have declined in the face of globalization, but we should be wary of it raising its ugly head again. Nationalist parties of various hues grow in strength all over the world, and in Europe are important driving forces behind anti-EU sentiment. In the face of mass movements of people across borders and economic decline their popular appeal is in danger of increasing, together with all kinds of xenophobia, suspicion and nastiness.  It is ironic that on the centenary of the start of the brutal battle of Verdun, which saw the two great European powers, France and Germany, seeking to destroy each other, questions should be raised about the value of the European project.

However, what makes Europe and its institutions even more important now is the decline of the nation state as a viable political and economic unit. Considering the immense global challenges we all face, the idea that the key to our welfare and prosperity is political and economic independence is foolish and dangerous. In particular, the growing power of international capital, the global reach of the internet and the threat of climate change demand an effective international response. It is vital that Europe, with its long shared struggle towards freedom, democracy and co-operation, should play its part in that response. The world needs to hear the voice of Europe, and the UK is an integral and needed part of that voice.

Europeans have many different ideas about themselves, and different ambitions for their continent. Some seek a federal State. Others see Europe as a means of economic advantage.  Others love its cultural richness. The fact that the European idea takes many forms is a challenge, but our shared history and collective identity is a reality that cannot be denied.

It is natural that many UK politicians, used to wielding power, feel threatened at the prospect of sharing it with foreignors. The political culture in this country, particularly on the right, with its historical ties to the monarchy, to Empire and to the aristocracy, is jealously guarded by those who have been strongly influenced by it, and whose political education has been shaped by it. Partnership with the different traditions of the continent, however, is an enriching, and potentially liberating experience for our political life as a nation. We are not the only ones who believe in democracy and freedom.

It is time for the narrow and outdated introversion of those who want to stand aloof from Europe to be shown up for what it is. We need to play a full and generous part in shaping Europe from the inside, for the sake of the UK and the rest of the world.

Peter Shepherd (February 2016)

What kind of change? A challenge for the Church

Change is unavoidable. Sometimes it occurs dramatically, arriving out of the blue, unexpected and unprepared for. The consequences are unpredictable as the cards are thrown into the air, to fall where they will. An unexpected accident or heart attack, for example, or an earthquake. The immediate effect is dramatic, and the long term significance may take many years to become clear.

Sudden change is welcomed by those who seek radical answers to the problems they see around them, and who see the disruption of the status quo as an opportunity to achieve something new. Uncertainty may be exciting – and profitable – for some, but it is foolish to think the outcome can be controlled. The law of unintended consequences will inevitably apply.

Gradual change, on the other hand, goes on behind the scenes, and it is sometimes hard to see it as change at all. People grow older; institutions evolve; values and habits develop. The cards are rearranged one by one and it’s only with hindsight that the consequences can be seen. The long-term results may be just as profound and unpredictable, but without the trauma. People have time to get used to them.

The challenge is to handle both kinds of change wisely, as they are both inevitable.  They are often related, in the sense that a period of gradual adjustments can suddenly lead to a dramatic event. A slow build up of cholesterol results in a life changing stroke; long-term and unrecognized changes in society manifest themselves in sudden political upheaval; the slow acceptance of irresponsible business practices leads to a financial crisis.

We are living through unprecedented and rapid change. This is evident in lots of places, including large scale global movements of people, changing patterns of world trade, medical advances, smart phones and radicalization in religion. Many packs of cards are up in the air, and it is impossible to know how they will fall. Coping with this uncertainty is one the major challenges facing us. It is sometimes tempting to think that only radical reform can meet the challenge, or on the other hand to resist change altogether. Both approaches are bound to be unsuccessful.

None of us can live in a state of constant uncertainty. We all need a measure of stability and continuity in our lives. Communities need long standing institutions; families need stable relationships; values need to be preserved and not continuously redefined; businesses need stable economic conditions. Not that reform and change are unnecessary, or that sudden change is always harmful. But without some degree of security we are bound to lose confidence, and the ability to control our lives. We can never be truly free in a state of chaos.

So what is the role of the Church in all this?  It is part of today’s world, with all its unpredictability, and shares its character, but it also represents the reliability and faithfulness of God. God is not changeless – the vitality and interplay of his triune existence, in the Christian understanding, reflects that. But alongside that movement is continuity and stability. The Church exists, in part, to demonstrate through its own life and work the settled commitment of God to the world in Jesus.  It must change, if it is to remain relevant, but its organization, activities and life should also provide stability in a confusing and often chaotic world.  Better, in the long run, to seek renewal step by step than to seek radical transformation.

Peter Shepherd (February 2016)