Central to the Church of England’s understanding of itself as the established church is its vocation to be a “church of the nation” – a public institution ready to bring a theological voice to the national debates of the day. The trauma of Brexit confronts the four nations of the United Kingdom in different ways but – given the centrality to the debate of a resurgent English nationalism – it is most painful for England, which is where the Church of England’s mission is primarily directed.
Since 2016, several individual bishops, some in their capacity as “Lords Spiritual” have sought to contribute to this debate, often with balance and insight. Yet – unlike both the (Anglican) Scottish Episcopal Church and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland – the Church of England has so far been unable to bring any authoritative collective voice to the national conversation.
No debate on Brexit has taken place in General Synod (the Church of England’s governing body), either before or since the 2016 referendum. While the House of Bishops was able in 2015 to produce an unusually substantial statement before the general election – Who is my Neighbour? – it has so far delivered no formal public statement on Brexit at all.
One obvious explanation for this official silence suggests itself. A referendum exit poll conducted by Greg Smith and Linda Woodhead revealed that English Anglicans are as divided on Brexit as the general population, with 66% reportedly having voted Leave. Since almost all bishops were Remainers, a collective intervention on Brexit could have proved incendiary.
But this cannot be a sufficient account of the church’s institutional reticence. The Church of England has at times been prepared to risk significant controversy in its public interventions. Acrimonious divisions among Anglicans did not prevent the leadership defending its traditional but highly controversial stance against same-sex marriage in 2013.