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Talking on the cliff edge – Leave/Remain – Haddon Willmer urges Church to engage in conversation on the Brexit debate

10 April 2019

This post begins with an extract from a feature that appeared in the Guardian on April 15th. It tells of the many difficult conversations that had to take place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It continues with an article by Haddon Willmer in which he writes about the need for similarly tough conversations to take place now and argues the importance of Church facing up to and debating the “disagreements, frustrations and fears” of the current Brexit crisis. 

From the Guardian 15 April 2019 Blair and Ahern

Of all of the meetings we were involved in leading up to the Good Friday agreement, none were more difficult than those with family members of victims of the Troubles. Widows of British army soldiers and RUC officers, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers of nationalists, republicans, loyalists. There were those who could not understand why we were seeking a deal with people who had killed their loved ones, or releasing from prison people who had committed horrendous crimes. Yet there were also those who made us promise to make the process work to ensure that others would not have to go through what they did. These conversations made us determined to ensure that such courage would form the basis upon which those following could build a better future.

Yet in practice, it was also time away from these conversations and from the media storm that enabled the Good Friday agreement to come together. It was time in the company of rivals with differing versions of what was right, and what was wrong, what was possible, and what was not; people with the personality and resolution, when surrounded by uncertainty and competing visions of the future, to put together a new power-sharing agreement.

Nobody should compare the tragedy of the Troubles to Brexit, but … the necessity for calm matters even more

Of course, nobody should compare the tragedy of the Troubles to Brexit, but as the rhetoric becomes stronger, the language becomes more divisive and inflammatory, the divisions in the Tory and Labour parties more evident, the need for calm matters even more. Having conversations with the public matters. Speak to those who voted remain, the 48%, alongside those who voted leave, and try to understand both. Speak to those who do not tweet incessantly or rage endlessly on radio phone-ins, as well as those who do. Understand that the public are undergoing the same process of churn and reflection as the politicians, and give them permission to be honest about that. Getting away from the media chaos to do this matters. Getting the right personalities together from across parties matters. Teams of rivals must be built.

From   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/14/good-friday-agreement-ireland-brexit-tony-blair-bertie-ahern

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Above is part of a longer article by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern relating the achieving of the Good Friday agreement to our task now of working together to make the least damaging outcome of the Brexit issue that we can.  

It is a call for engaging in conversations, which have become more difficult than ever, across the gulfs of disagreement, fear and frustration, which now divide us. The conversation is not only for politicians but for people in general.  Not only for those who ‘tweet incessantly’ but also for those who don’t. Not only for those who talk freely because they are excited or fearful, but those who tend to keep quiet and take shelter in fraught situations – even while they worry in private. We are all already living in the confusion of the way to Brexit, and we will all have to live with it as it unfolds for years to come.  

Politicians talk and show how demanding it is for ordinary human beings to deal with a complex of issues like Brexit – or the Northern Irish situation as it was in the 1990s. We expect them to do the talking for us and to solve the problem and we criticize and despise them from failing, from our positions of superior evasion. Blair and Ahern remind us that many different people were engaged in difficult conversations out of which real if imperfect change happened, a working agreement to work together in future. In those conversations many people, half-politicians or un-politicians moved from their silos to talk with the enemies next door. That was not easy, either to start or to persist with.   

On Brexit many of us are still in our silos, Leave or Remain. Families and friends avoid breaking up by never talking about it. What does it do to our relationships when we live closely together, feeling that some issue is real and important, and yet being unable to talk about it together, calmly and constructively? It is like a disease that makes holes in the bones. 

Questions about the UK and the EU have been pressing on us for the last four years. All through those years, many of us have been going to Church, indeed trying to ‘be Church’.  But there has been virtually no conversation about Brexit amongst us. Why not? Does following Jesus make it a matter of indifference to us? Is Church for us a haven of peace, in a troubled world? All through this time, many of us in Church have been deeply concerned about Brexit and its consequences but we have not shared them, though we would like to think being Church implies a deeper than average sharing of life. We see the peoples of these islands divided, bewildered, drifting towards a cliff-edge, while some deny that there is such a thing. But we don’t talk with one another.  

We don’t talk because we fear falling out with each other. Why should we fear that would be the outcome of talking? We are aware of our passions and sensitivities, and those of others, and we don’t want to let them loose. But why could we not keep them in check enough to talk calmly and constructively? I think there are two reasons. One is that we can see that such a conversation would require us to be ready to get beyond our ready-made, slogan-like opinions, and work together to understand the whole situation better. Hard work like that requires patience, humility, curiosity and comradeship.  

The second reason is that when we pause to contemplate the mess we are in because of Brexit we get a glimpse of the road ahead, and it is, whatever happens, hard and steep. Whatever side we come from, Leave, Remain, of Don’t Care, it will require us to accept and live with uncomfortable outcomes. And yet, unless we can accept them with goodwill, unselfishness, care for the poorest, and the readiness for sustained hard work, we will not be able to live the future that is coming with peace and joy, love and justice. We hold back, hoping there will be an easier way, even praying for a miracle, a happy outcome achieved by a power greater than our own.   

Like it or not, the people of the UK are set a task by Brexit: it has to be lived through somehow or another. Christians in Church are set a life-task, to be salt and light, living in and serving in the world.  These are not two distinct tasks, as though we could concentrate on one and ignore the other, or be faithful and effective in one and careless about our failure in the other. In the grace of God, they have been given a large overlap, a deep intertwining. They are not identical, but they are not separable, for us now. This is why we should talk about Brexit in our secular contexts, but have the conversation in Church.  

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