When there is no consensus on what is a consensus.
The problem is not just that there is no consensus but that there is no consensus on what a consensus should look like. I write this blog, for those reading my words in several weeks’ time, during the high noon of the Brexit crisis. No one knows what quite what is happening and where we are going. Our MP’s cannot come up with a coherent policy on how to Brexit. According to the BBC website MPs are expected to vote for a third time on the Brexit withdrawal deal next week, despite speaker John Bercow saying what is put forward must be substantially different to be voted on. This morning our Prime Minister makes the plea: “I hope that we can all agree we are now at the moment of decision. And I will make every effort to ensure that we are able to leave with a deal and move our country forward." However, the problem as I see it is not that parliament isn’t working; in fact, despite the party system our elected representatives are highly responsive to their constituents’ views. The problem is that the country itself is divided, almost half and half, between in and out. Moreover with those who voted to leave there is no clear consensus on how to leave. Compromise is not possible when fundamentally Brexit is an either/or decision. However, as a nation we are out of practice on finding consensus. It was the Iron Lady who argued: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” That’s all very well but we are now in a crisis caused by there being no mechanism for our politicians to come to a common mind. Too many, understandably, are not going to vote for a decision they abhor. Of course, if enough MP’s change their mind through sheer fear and vote for our Prime Minster’s motion, at least a decision will have been made. The problem is that it will leave a sense of betrayal in the other camp for a basic rule of life is how you make a decision is as important as what decision has been made. The repercussions will travel down the generations. “What did you vote for in the great Brexit debate, Daddy?” Of course there is no Christian perspective on Brexit because it is a political and not a moral choice. Christians voted on both sides with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some believers, such as Archbishop Justin, would argue against a no-deal Brexit because it would hit the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK. However, as Christians we can take a position on how to make the decision. Again to quote the Archbishop: “Supporters of remain and leave must exercise restraint in their language.” He argues that people and political leaders need to “calm down the hatreds that have arisen over the last few years, so that we will move towards reconciliation.” How we handle disputes which go deep and cause personal friction is key. This was the problem facing the early church over whether to eat meat. Strong passions were aroused. It wasn’t that these first disciples were vegetarians. It was simply that meat in the non-Jewish world came direct from pagan temples which effectively acted as municipal abattoirs. To eat such meat was to condone pagan sacrifice, the animals having been offered to pagan gods. This meant that to honour Jesus some Christians simply refused to eat such meat as a matter of principle. However, there was no consensus in the church. Other Christians took the line that because these foreign gods are not gods at all but defeated powers. “So pass the steak, I'm hungry”. This was the problem facing the apostle Paul as he wrote to the key churches in Rome and in Corinth. He could see the argument for both sides: “Those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.” (Romans 14:6) Nevertheless, a bigger issue is at stake – the unity of the church. So the apostle argues for mutual respect. “Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13). So it’s not just a case of reluctantly tolerating each other: the very opposite, in fact. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7) But that’s as far as I can go in this Brexit debacle but nevertheless, far enough. It’s essential to know how to disagree well and more, to respect the final outcome. That is, however all of this finally works out, we do it together and do our best to make it work.
I’ll let a politician of another country have the final word, the American Barbara Jordan. “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.” She’s right.