Bishop of Coventry takes part in debate on the UK’s membership of the European Union

In the House of Lords on 25th November 2014, Labour Peer Lord Liddle led a take-note debate on the case for the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, took part in the debate. In his remarks, he noted that a shift in focus from economic costs and benefits to the European Union’s role as an institution of peace and reconciliation is necessary for meaningful debate to take place on the UK’s place in the EU. He noted that reform was necessary, not least to rebalance the democratic deficit between national and supra-national governance. He noted that churches may be well placed to create safe and neutral spaces in which informed and serious debate on the UK’s place in Europe can take place.

13.10 Bishop of CoventryThe Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for securing this debate, although I enter it with some trepidation in such company. I am constrained to do so by the story of Coventry, from where I come, and by the originating Christian contribution to the possibilities that some form of common life might have for Europe and, thereby, for the world. When in your daily life you see the scars of warfare upon a city, when you hear the testimony of those who lost homes and families on one night in November 1940, when each year you are joined by Germans in the commemoration of your city’s 500 dead, and when you join them as they remember their city’s thousands of dead, you know that peace counts and that reconciliation is indeed a precious gift, and you give thanks for the project which has had peace as its fundamental purpose.

I am not qualified to proffer an economic cost-benefit analysis of the UK’s membership of the EU. However, as a citizen of Coventry, I should like to register the deep thanks of my city to those who sought to make war in Europe, as the Schuman declaration put it,

“not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.

I should like to go further and say that somehow the debate about Europe, if it is to reinspire the generations, will need to appeal to something higher than money.

“Self-interest can never be a satisfactory foundation for a permanent alliance of nations”,

argued Bishop George Bell, who, even in the early days of the war, began to spell out a vision for a reconciled Europe. “Without a vision, the people perish”, said the ancient Jewish prophet.

The originating vision for Europe involved both a sense of responsibility for other peoples and nations within Europe and a responsibility for the world beyond Europe. “What can Europe do for me?” is a legitimate question but it is too small a matter to ignite the human spirit. “What can I do in Europe and through Europe for a more peaceful and prosperous, free, fair and better world?”. That is the sort of question that I would like the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU to be addressing, such as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.

None of this is to suggest that we should take an uncritical view of Europe as it has become. Certain characteristics of European integration—not least its democratic deficit—remain matters of profound concern, and the unease evident in many parts of Europe about its present form is an indication that a rebalancing of national sovereignty and European authority is necessary. But even here it is worth reconnecting with the original vision for a reconciled Europe, which was of “a community of communities”.

Behind that proposal lay a rich seam of Christian theology known technically as the doctrine of koinonia, or communion, in which people and churches place themselves in an ecology of interdependence, which, in promoting the common good of the whole, also serves the particular good of the parts. Indeed, I venture to suggest that this theology of, if I may put it in this way, the “covenanted mutuality of the autonomous” that is shared by Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches may at this point of European history complement the more distinctively Roman Catholic notion of subsidiarity, with its implication of organic unity that has been so influential on the development of Europe up to this point.

I conclude with two hopes for our national debate. The first is that it will be lifted from an exercise in accountancy to matters of higher human importance—virtues such as peace and reconciliation, responsibility and mutuality that can put the soul back into Europe. The second is that, learning from the Church of Scotland during the referendum debate, there might be a role for the churches of the UK to create the sort of safe and neutral spaces in which informed and serious debate of this kind can take place.

I am heartened in voicing my hopes on the same day as Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament, calling on its members to make Europe recover the best of itself and,

“to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy”—

I would say not just around the economy—

“but around the sacredness”—

the transcendent dignity—

“of the human person, around inalienable values”,

so that Europe can be,

“a precious point of reference for all humanity”.


Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Government Response): …My noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, along with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, made a point of reminding us of the importance of the EU. Every day we think of the EU it reminds us that its birth was after a period of conflagration in the early part of the last century. Since then we have been working together and arguing. Boy can we argue, and why not? We do that in Parliament so why not in Europe? We can argue and come to sensible, pragmatic decisions where we can make concessions to each other. We can go on working together without raising a gun. That is what is important…


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