The Referendum and Christian Theology

The UK’s dies irae is almost upon us, and I’ve decided to take the last opportunity to pontificate on themes related to the referendum and EU membership from a theological perspective. I’ve done so because it’s interesting, because theologians ought occasionally to justify their place in civil society by actually engaging with it, and because I promised Bill I would in the pub weeks ago. I also need a revision break.

I’ll consider three issues arising from my own theological interests; perhaps others will add their own. First, I’ll look at the idea of sovereignty, a concept to which many have appealed but few have dissected. Second, to the history of the English Church as both a national and European institution. Third, I’ve a few semi-relevant thoughts on what Theology has to say about the relationship of the Universal to the Particular.

Three caveats: I talk as much about England as the UK, largely because I suspect that the UK is really a state rather than a nation (a sometimes relevant distinction), but also because England dominates the UK demographically, constitutionally and ecclesiastically. I also use the EU and Europe semi-interchangeably, not because I think they’re the same (look up the Council of Europe) but because despite protests I still think it’s valid to discuss the former in terms of the latter. Finally, bits of this are a bit tongue in cheek, in a typically Oriel-theology overstated-but-somehow-still-ringing-of-the-truth way.

To wit:

Sovereignty in the UK, or, A Very British Theocracy.


Photo: Getty Images.

Secularists in a British context are often wont to argue that the United Kingdom is a theocracy on the basis that it is one of only two countries in the world to have unelected religious leaders sitting ex officio as members of its legislature. The other is Iran, and we are supposed to conclude that the Lords Spiritual who sit in our upper house are a Bad Thing. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a somewhat simplistic argument which overlooks some significant theological and political differences between the garden variety Church of England bishop and one’s average Iranian ayatollah.

But I’ll concede the secularist this: the UK does seem to be a de jure, though not de facto, theocracy.

Strictly speaking, in the UK neither the the people nor the nation state is sovereign; the Queen is. Executive authority is wielded in her name, so that our government is properly HM Government, rather than that of the people or the nation. The armed forces swear allegiance to her, rather than to Britain. Judicial authority is held, in theory, to come from the Crown too; justice is dispensed in Crown Courts by judges appointed by the Crown, sitting under the royal arms. Even parliament, which in the Westminster system of government trumps all the above, is not sovereign over and against the Crown; the Crown is a constituent part of parliament. The sovereignty of the Queen-in-Parliament is most obviously encapsulated in the formula which enacts laws passed at Westminster:

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows…

Yet this sovereignty, derived de jure from the Crown, is theologically legitimised and warranted. Look at any British coin (and indeed, many in Commonwealth Realms) and you’ll see the Queen proclaimed as Elizabeth II D[ei] G[ratia] REG[ina]. In all her official and legal titles, the Queen is Queen by the Grace of God. The Coronation Service involves an anointing with consecrated oil, a sacramental act inherited from ancient Israel via Constantinople and France, symbolising and effecting divine election and trust. That is, English sovereignty is sovereignty by God’s gift; it is properly only His, not hers, or indeed ours. This is of course, consonant with and a necessary corollary of Christian doctrine. There is only one sovereign power, besides whom there is no other, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19).


Image:, apparently.

This English doctrine of sovereignty is highly significant from a Christian theological point of view. First, it relativises human sovereignty in a helpful way. The sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament is held Dei gratia, and is therefore ultimately accountable to God. First and foremost, whatever the outcome of the referendum, theologians should articulate loudly and clearly the provisional, relative and delegated character of human sovereignty.

Second, the model and exemplar of Christian sovereignty Dei gratia must be Christ himself, the King of Kings. In our soft-theocracy, we have a properly normative pattern of sovereign action in Christ: his resolve to conform to the will of the Father, his views on violence and warfare, his concern for the poor and outcast, his view of the redemption (in various senses of the word) of man, and his willingness to suffer on behalf of those in his charge are always – the theologian ought to affirm – politically, ethically and (in the UK) constitutionally relevant to public discourse.

A further example: human rights. Christians believe that human rights are grounded in the status of human beings as beings-in-relationship with God, in his image and for whom He died, created only a little lower than God/the angels (Ps. 8). This provides in my view a strong (perhaps the only strong) foundation for human rights law and activism. The English doctrine of sovereignty as delegated by God, and responsible to God, joins the dots between legal and moral understandings of human rights: in the authority of the Queen-in-parliament, both are grounded in the great commandment which holds that love of God and love of neighbour are mutually implicative.

Finally, the English and Christian doctrine of sovereignty exalts the notion of personhood, in a way that is theologically satisfying and beneficial to citizens. In the British constitution, personhood takes priority over ‘the people’. Sovereignty is embodied, first and foremost in the person of the Sovereign herself, standing in a covenanted relationship with God and with her subjects. Our constitution is irreducibly personal, with sovereignty vested in the flesh and bones of an elderly woman, and of the various Lord Spiritual and Temporal, and in our elected representatives. The great mass of persons cannot be fully reduced to an abstract ‘people’ after the fashion of le peuple, or a homogenising, totalitarian Volksgemeinschaft.

What should we take from this? First, that quests for absolute sovereignty are, unless framed within the boundaries of Christian discourse, ultimately idolatrous. Sovereignty per se is a property of God, not any of us. Whoever wins the referendum must be reminded of this, and reminded of the theological underpinnings of their responsibilities to their fellow man. Second, we should consider the possibility that we have a responsibility to remind the European states of this concept of sovereignty, jettisoned by most of them during the long nineteenth century. Enlightenment absolutism – now democratic, then not so much – ought to be revisited and criticised from a Christian perspective. It may be that we have the power to do so from within the EU.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The popular perception of history in the UK is not particularly nuanced. This is perhaps partly due to a sense of being ‘in the right’ with regard to the greatest events of recent history: standing against the Kaiser, Nazisim and the Soviets. It’s also due to a popular historiography which hasn’t changed all that much (except perhaps with respect to social class) since Our Island Story, satirised and yet sustained by the likes of 1066 and all that. Elizabeth I is still ‘Good Queen Bess’; her sister still ‘Bloody Mary’. The EU, the Prime Minister, Boris, Gove, Sturgeon, Frau Merkel: in the tabloids they’re all fundamentally discussed as Good Kings and Bad Kings.

A major component of English history, and both sides in the debate are appealing to history, is its ecclesiastical history. And here we might want briefly to consider three main areas of interest.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

First: Christian Britain and Christian Europe. It’s deeply unfashionable to consider in any depth, but both Britain and Europe have histories grounded in the thought and practice  of Christianity. Englishness and Britishness were both produced in strongly Christian contexts: the very idea of Englishness owes a great deal to the Venerable/Venemous (delete as appropriate) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One of the major factors in the formation of an English identity from the myriad Angle, Saxon and Jute settler groups, and from the great mass of pre-migration Britons, was their common experience of Christian identity as a Church centred largely on Canterbury and York. Yet this whole process was part of a much larger European movement: the missionary efforts of the Irish Church in Scotland and the North, and Gregory the Great’s decision to send Augustine to evangelise the South (non angli sed angeli). The popular perception of Anglo-Saxon Christianity is nineteenth-century and nationalist; tall blond men throwing Danes and Norwegians and Scots out of their lands. Few remember the victory of pan-European Roman Catholicism over Celtic provincialism at the Synod of Whitby; or the hugely influential archiepiscopate of the Asian-Greek Theodore of Tarsus at Canterbury; or Alfred the Great’s childhood visit to Rome for confirmation, at which he was invested as a Roman Consul! Even the historical, ecclesiastical geography of England is self-consciously European: London’s churches are as Roman as they get, with the two great churches of St. Paul and St. Peter (the Abbey!), and major parishes dedicated to such ultramontane saints as Clement and Pancras. Europe is stamped indelibly onto our Christian history. Britishness, though, developed in large due from the shared experience of the Protestant succession being defended post-1688 (boo! hiss!) against Catholic Europe; it is no coincidence that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to experience Britishness, and that the Republic of Ireland does not.

Second: England develops something recognisable as a proto-Westphalian sovereignty doctrine as part of the Henrician reformation. Brexit first happened in the 1530s, with the Statute in Restraint of Appeals (24 Hen 8 c 12) proclaiming:

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

Whatever one thinks of the principles involved in the Reformation Brexit, it bears considering its effects, not least to how “natural and humble obedience” was interpreted in a Realm shorn of right to appeal ecclesiastical cases overseas.

Third: those in favour of an ‘In’ vote stress the role that the EU has played in keeping Europe’s peace and advancing the cause of human rights over the last few decades. The counterargument stresses the equivalent role of NATO, a non-EU organisation. Here we might consider a third force, usually overlooked in this country: the influence of European Christian Democracy. Because the UK has no Christian Democratic party, we’re often blind to the historical and contemporary influence of this ideology on the continent and in the Union. Grounded in the social doctrine of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century popes, Christian Democracy has been a major factor in the post-war European settlement, motivating several of the great leaders of Europe from Adenauer to Merkel. I doubt either Boris or Cameron have read Rerum Novarum, but they should have done. It’s an important part of modern European politics.

The primacy of the Universal over the Particular.

Finally, Christian theology has something to say about universals and particulars; about unity and multiplicity. I won’t get into trinitarian analogies here, (a) because I’m suspicious of social trinitarianism, and (b) because they’re too trite even for me. But here are some thoughts:

Christianity does tend to put the universal ahead of the particular (not to be confused with the personal, see above). We believe in a human nature that can fall in Adam and be redeemed in Christ, whatever that means. Affirming that we share a single nature in imago dei, the Christian is pretty much bound to sign up to the late Jo Cox’s laudable affirmation that, “We have more in common than that which divides us.” [I note that this is a principle, not a policy, and is relevant to both the Leave and Remain camps in different ways]. In a similar vein, Ratzingerian theologians in the Roman Church have re-contextualised ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’ by pointing to the Church’s origins in the universal missionary function of the college of Apostles gathered around Christ, as prior to and the origin of the sum of local eucharistic communities. One might be tempted to apply similar reasoning to nations and states, as post-lapsarian realities, providential and God-given goods in themselves, which are nonetheless the result of tendencies in human society which Israel and the Church have classically discussed in terms of the story of the Tower of Babel. Whichever way the vote goes, Christian theologians in the UK and Europe are going to have a responsibility to articulate afresh a Christian theological vision of the relationship between mankind as a whole and our various national or ethnic subgroups.


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