In his opening address at the Church of England’s synod, meeting this week in London, Justin Welby said: “There are a thousand ways to explain the Brexit vote, or the election of President Trump, or the strength in the polls in Holland of Geert Wilders or in France of Madame Le Pen and many other leaders in a nationalist, populist or even fascist tradition of politics.”
Although the C of E leader has previously suggested Trump’s politics and policies were based on fear and exclusion, his criticism went a step further by linking the US president in with far-right party leaders in Europe.
With regard to Brexit, Welby’s connection between the referendum result and far-right and neo-fascist politics is likely to infuriate those who say the vote was the outcome of social, political and economic marginalisation and exclusion rather than stemming from deep-seated nationalism.
In fact, Welby cited “the impact of globalisation economically, or marginalisation politically and of post-modernity culturally” as playing a role in the new political landscape, while saying there was no simple explanation.
The archbishop added: “That will be the material of a thousand PhDs and no consensus in the next 50 years. We are in the middle of it all and we see neither the destination nor the road we must travel.”
He added that now was “a moment to reimagine Britain, a moment of potential opportunity, certainly combined with immensely hard work and heavy lifting”. Welby said: “It is a moment of challenge, but challenge that as a nation can be overcome with the right practices, values, culture and spirit. This could be a time of liberation, of seizing and defining the future, or it could be one in which the present problems seize our national future and define us.”
The church had a significant role to play – despite its declining numbers, obliquely acknowledged by Welby – in bringing a fractured country together through its education of 1 million children in C of E schools, its presence in every community and its role in national history.
“The Church of England retains influence,” he said. “We have at present the extraordinary privilege of sitting in parliament, the remarkable gift and responsibility of educating, chaplains in every sphere of life and a role in the public life of the nation. We have a heritage of presence across England, burdensome although it may sometimes be, and the vocation of being the default point of help and support in times of trouble, or celebration in times of joy.
“In the necessary reimagination of our country we cannot dictate but we must participate. Participation means being a listening, suffering and reconciling presence, not a hectoring, self-interested one. The language of public life at present is deeply, savagely divided and may become worse. Our power is found only in selfless service and the cross.”
The opening day of the four-day synod was dominated by the issue of sexuality, with tensions between traditionalist and inclusive wings of the church evident. One synod member, the Rev Canon Simon Butler of St Mary’s Battersea, disclosed that he had received a text from another synod member a few minutes before the synod opened, which he described as “borderline harassment”.
In his speech, Welby said: “The text received by Simon Butler was an inexcusable self-indulgence by the sender; a perfect illustration of how not to act.”
Gay rights campaigners argued to extend the time allocated to debate on Wednesday a report by bishops that upholds traditional teaching on marriage as a lifelong union between a man and woman. The decision rests with Welby and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, as the joint presidents of the synod.
There were also calls for extra debates on the government’s announcement that no more refugee children will be brought to the UK under the so-called Dubs amendment and on Trump’s executive order – now suspended – barring the entry of Syrian refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority nations to the US.
“These are matters that properly concern our synod,” said the Rev Canon Jane Charman from Salisbury. “The recent actions of the US and UK governments have a direct impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our world.” The synod was in danger of being too absorbed in internal affairs, she added.
First posted on theguardian