Book Review—Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)

To move forward with Brexit as a nation, we need to recognise that both sides of the debate are right in what they affirm, Graham Tomlin suggests.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019).

In this 30 page treatise, Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington) somehow manages to breathe fresh life into how I think about Brexit. He does so not by focussing on the Brexit debate itself as a set of complex political or economic issues. Rather, he looks at how we might begin to heal and move forward as a nation post-Brexit. For my money, three things make his short book worth reading.

  1. The Historical Parallels to the English Reformation

“‘Britain goes it alone’. It’s a headline that could have been written nearly 500 years ago”. Tomlin is speaking, of course, about the English Reformation.

English Christians in the sixteenth century vigorously and often violently debated whether the Church should break away from a different pan-European project—not the EU in Brussels, but the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome.

At the heart of the debate was the tussle between the local and the universal, the decision to create a national church or continue to identify with its centre in Rome.

The English Church, Tomlin explains, took the decision to exist independently of Rome. The Church of England was the result (though the journey to the Elizabethan settlement was by no means a smooth one). Crucially, this national church sought to balance the local and the universal. It did so through the parish system. Here, churches were both local and universal. They were local since they existed as relatively independent congregations tied to a geographical location. And they were universal (or at least national) by dint of sharing creeds and a common form of worship as well as allegiance to bishops and the Monarch. Tomlin emphasises that because congregations existed with relative autonomy, each parish was free to embrace either Protestant or Catholic styles of worship.

It is important to place this mixed form within the context of the Reformation, more generally. On the one hand, the radical reformers sought to establish completely independent parishes with no ties to other structures. These existed almost like independent communes. At the other extreme, the Catholic church existed as a universal project with power centred in Rome and decisions taken and dictated from that centre.

Enter the Church of England. In Tomlin’s words,

The emerging Church of England, tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though it might be…

I found the historical parallel between the English Reformation and Brexit extremely illuminating and helpful. So have others. Giles Fraser has commented lucidly on the English Reformation as a positive case for Brexit, here and here. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes the opposite view to Fraser, here, arguing that the Church of England was a part of the great internationalist religious movement of its day. Both authors are worth reading. They represent exemplary cases that engage critically with the past which they use as a resource for thinking about the present and future.

Tomlin belongs firmly within this group as well. What he offers is something slightly different to Fraser and McCullough, however. He’s not using history to argue for Leave or Remain (which I have no problem with, by the way, so long as it’s done well).

For Tomlin, the English Reformation, and the Elizabethan Settlement in particular, offers a way to think about how we might begin to heal, how we might come together to form a common life after the great decision has been made.

How convincing is Tomlin’s use of this historical example? I agree that the the Church of England was both a movement with strong continental ties (and so universal), while at the same time possessing a strong national identity*. The ties between Cranmer and Calvin (and indeed Edward VI and Calvin, who were pen pals) are well documented. What these links show is an independently functioning national church with an international flavour.

What does this mean for Brexit? For what it’s worth, I think it means that it is very possible for us to be independent of the structures of the EU whilst still sharing links (whether that be trade or security) with nations on the European continent. Just as with the English Reformation, so also with Brexit, it is possible to be independent of a large super-structure whilst at the same time being connected to other like-minded entities existing within that super-structure.

More important is Tomlin’s insightful point about pursuing a common life at a time of great national division. I think he is right in suggesting that the English Reformation offers one example of compromise in a messy world. It’s a realistic model, even if (or perhaps precisely because) it can be extremely difficult to achieve.

*On the point about national identity, and as a slight side note, I would have loved to hear more about English vernacular translations of the bible (Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible and so on) and how this reflected the desire to render the scriptures in the language of the man and woman in the field.

2. The Local and the Universal: What Both Sides Rightly Affirm

I’ve already touched on the local v universal issue but it’s worth a discussion in its own right. Tomlin incisively draws on David Goodhart’s useful heuristic of “somewheres” and “anywheres” (*Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics remains one of the most useful and convincing analyses of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump).

As Goodhart explains, anywheres live portable lives and possess “achieved” identities. They tend to pass school exams, attend residential universities before moving on to jobs in London or even overseas. Somewheres, meanwhile, belong to particular places and tend to have lived there most of their lives. They possess “ascribed” identities (identities given to them by the place and family in which they grow up). In very general terms, somewheres tended to vote Leave, with anywheres casting their ballots for Remain.

Here’s the crucial point: Tomlin argues that both anywheres and somewheres are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Somewheres stress rootedness in a place with distinct customs, sense of humour, culture, norms, commitments and stories that give that place meaning. As Tomlin explains,

Every society needs to value what makes it distinct. We are born to particular parents, into a specific family and neighbourhood at a certain time in history…we need a common sense of our underlying common bonds.

If a society loses its particular cultural memory, people begin to feel rootless and life can appear shallow.

At the same time, the emphasis on the local or the national can turn poisonous if this is all there is. A lack of cultural or political diversity can lead to the fossilisation of a particular nation or an overweening sense of national pride.

Meanwhile, we find the universal impulse channelling itself into the celebration of other cultures and their achievements and customs. This typically expresses itself in university education, connections with other parts of the world through foreign travel and networks of colleagues and friends. As with the local, so also can the universal impulse turn poisonous and erode a unified sense of identity as it crowds out the distinctive customs of a given place.

Where does this leave us? Tomlin reasons that,

Both are necessary. Every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses. A loss of identity and rootedness leads to a fading of cultural memory, a lack of belonging and a diminishing sense of who we are as a nation…Yet what if we close ourselves off from other cultures, shut the door to neighbours (especially when they are in trouble), fail to play our part in wider conversations about the global future, and show reluctance to change? Such behaviour is dangerous…

Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.

And yet, as Tomlin goes on to note, in the referendum we were forced to make a choice between these two impulses. While one impulse might be dominant at any given time, Tomlin is right to note that this choice, insofar as it was permanent and irrevocable, was in many ways a false one.

3. Practicing Love…Even for Our Enemies

The Brexit referendum, Tomlin concludes, also involved “competing loves”. We can either love our nearest and dearest—those “like us”. Or, we can love and treat with dignity those unlike us.

The Christian tradition meets these competing loves head on. For Christians, to present these as competing loves is to offer yet another false choice. At the heart of the Christian tradition which infuses much of Western culture is Jesus’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself”:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

Tomlin categorises the loves in this passage into four types:

1. Loving yourself: we are to assume responsibility for ourselves by making sure we obtain adequate food, sleep and maintain good health. But if this is all we aspire to, we are narcissists.

2. Loving the one like you: We are also called to lavish the same benefits we have enjoyed on those immediately around us (family and friends). But this comes naturally to us since we surround ourselves with those “like us”. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says.

3. Loving your neighbour: the neighbour is the one you come into contact with whom you do not necessarily choose and whom you do not necessarily love or have any reason to love.

4. Loving your enemy: Jesus goes beyond neighbourly love to include our enemies.

This is being capable of loving those who make life hard for you…Loving your enemy feels a stretch. It demands much of us to love the person who is after our job, or changing our neighbourhood or nation into something unrecognisable, or taking the opposite view from us on everything—including Brexit.

This is a hard saying! I think I would want to add (and I’m sure Tomlin would affirm this as well) that we can resist those seeking to change our neighbourhood into something we don’t recognise whilst still doing so lovingly and respectfully.

Indeed, Tomlin notes that these are not necessarily competing loves. That we do not need to choose between them. We can love those around us, those like us and that this ‘natural’ love should not be taken for selfishness (or racism), “but as the first stage in learning to love the stranger”. And yet, if we love only those like us, our love is deficient. At the same time, there are times when love for the immigrant or stranger can lead us to ignore the needs of those closest to home. This too, is a failure to love.

Tomlin’s short book ends with a plea for the future in the form of 5 things the nation needs to heal. I won’t end with these (buy the book!). Instead, I want to leave you with his important reminder that the Brexit divide is not simply a political or legal or economic challenge. Of course it is no less than these things. But at heart, it is a spiritual challenge which leaves us with lingering spiritual questions. How can we love our neighbour? How can we love even our enemy?

One final question which is perhaps the most important of all: Will we rise to this spiritual challenge?

Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.