Bishop of Lincoln urges tolerance and respect for diversity in Brexit debate

On 14th January 2019 the House of Lords debated the Government’s EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. The Bishop of Lincoln, Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, spoke in the debate. His full speech is below:

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, I am honoured to speak after the noble Baroness—honoured and a little daunted. This is the first time I have spoken on this issue. I therefore want to say something about my context of Lincoln and then consider what a Bishop might usefully add to this debate.

As your Lordships know, Lincolnshire is one of the parts of the United Kingdom that voted most emphatically in favour of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, with 66% voting to leave. I have thought hard about why that should be the case. There are the obvious reasons—the tip of the iceberg, if you like. Nationally, these would be described in terms of sovereignty and immigration.

We who live and work in rural Lincolnshire are prisoners of our geography. The countryside comprises a series of sparsely populated settlements, disconnected from each other, where you learn to fend for yourself.

However, we are also heavily influenced by our history, in which, over the centuries, external forces have sought to take control of our land and laws, sometimes against our best interests. Over the centuries, people have come to demand money with menaces, to conquer, to trade, to work and, in more recent years, to seek refuge and a better life for their families. Sometimes the people of Lincolnshire have fought back; occasionally we have even grumbled; but most of the time, as a generous people, we have gone with the flow of all this and adapted.​

But then there is the part of the iceberg under the water. There has been an international rise in populism playing on fear, with its accompanying narrative of the purity of what it means, in our case, to be British or English. There is also a naive view of democracy as plebiscite: “the people have spoken”. You do not need to be a polling expert to understand that people vote in elections and referendums for a variety of reasons—some noble, some flawed. The questions in the lanes of Lincolnshire—I was in a fen village near Holbeach last Sunday—appear to be: “Why is it taking ‘them in London’ so long to sort this out?”, and, from some more nuanced people, “Why can’t we explore some kind of compromise to get this done?”

I have heard almost all the speeches in this debate and am grateful for their differing perspectives. I have heard quite a lot of rhetorical certainty when we really know that the situation is extraordinarily complicated and confusing. Over the years the Church has learned and is learning, sometimes quite painfully, to manage diversity and difference, and it does so by recognising the compromised nature of our institution. I hope that the most reverend Primates in front of me will forgive me if I say that this side of heaven, the Church is not perfect.

One former Member of your Lordships’ House who knew Lincolnshire well, Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, began his ministry there. Ramsey was a brave and challenging thinker and spoke out clearly against injustice, including homophobia and apartheid, but in those early years in Lincolnshire he counselled the Church of England to understand itself more carefully as a compromised body. He wrote that the Church of England’s,

“credentials are its incompleteness, with tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic … for it is sent not to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died”.

The Church of England has always had to manage difference and diversity, and still needs to do so. Whatever happens over the next few days, weeks and months—and no one knows what will happen—I suggest that, as a nation, we need to recognise that we are profoundly divided and need to manage diversity better, with respect and humility. The regret Motion as worded presents problems for those Members of your Lordships’ House who might agree with the sentiments about a no-deal Brexit but are less inclined to dismiss the Government’s withdrawal agreement in the absence of any worked-through alternative. For that reason, your Lordships should not be surprised if they see Members of this Bench voting in either Lobby or choosing to abstain.

The people of the United Kingdom, just like Bishops in the House of Lords, are a mixed bunch. We are in this together and we need to remember and practise the art of listening and compromise to become, over time, the best nation we can be.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: … I want to follow up the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, particularly in his appeal for respect and humility. We must all, however, be increasingly conscious of the real and present danger of a “no deal” or “cliff edge” Brexit on 29 March… None ​the less, there is a full spectrum of opinion, both here and among the wider electorate, and we must take great care not to exacerbate social and political divisions at this difficult time. In the vile treatment of Anna Soubry and others, we see the consequence of overheated and hyperbolic rhetoric. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is a time for calm reflection, not hysteria, and certainly not antagonism.


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