The Church of England and Europe

The first rule of responding to any consultation is to answer the questions, and well-constructed questions are key to elucidating the required information and opinions.  A recent example demonstrating both criteria is Adam Wagner’s written evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry, which can be read as comprehensive guidance to good blogging practice.  However, responses that are considered out of context may give an unintended impression of the respondee.

Consider the submission of the Church of England Archbishops’ Council to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s Inquiry The Future of the European Union: UK Government Policy and the summary of the main points raised:

  • The Church of England is a Church established by law in the UK but it is also by virtue of its history a European Church. It recognizes that to have any influence in Brussels it needs to work in partnership with others. To this end it has invested time, energy and resources in building appropriate bilateral and multilateral relations with key strategic partners across Europe.
  • At the December 2011 European Council, the United Kingdom found itself not only without allies, but without credibility as a negotiating partner as it opposed measures which were intended to achieve broad policy goals which are fully in line with UK national interest. This exposed the domestic constraints on the British government and left its partners with the impression that it was an unreliable partner. An opportunity to show solidarity with partners was missed. The UK must work to rebuild trust with its EU partners.
  • Successive British governments have failed to articulate a policy towards the United Kingdom’s closest partners that sustains public opinion while enabling it to take a constructive line across the board. Unless future governments develop more constructive and positive conceptions of and commitments to the EU and are able to sell them to an increasingly skeptical domestic audience then Britain could find itself slowly drifting towards the exit. Rather than looking to formalize a two-tier structure the Government should use existing Treaty provisions on enhanced cooperation to press for a more flexible multi-speed Europe with variable membership across different policy sphere.
  • By agreeing a legally binding intergovernmental agreement outside the scope of the EU Treaties, signatories to the fiscal compact have marginalized the EU institutions and in so doing weakened their ability to defend the single market. These new arrangements could also have significant implications for the EU’s common judicial space and common foreign and security policy. There is a very real worry therefore that the fiscal compact while saving the Euro might over time contribute to the EU’s demise.
  • It is in the fundamental interests of the UK that the problems of the Eurozone are resolved and it is in the UK’s interests that this fiscal compact is folded back into existing EU Treaties as soon as possible. Those wishing to press ahead with a stability union should be able to do so using existing Treaty provisions that allow for enhanced cooperation. The development of a two-tier or even a multi-speed Europe is not without its risks but it is preferable that such a development builds on existing Treaties rather than departing from them.

Comment

Read as a single statement, the Church’s summary could be viewed as a detailed lobbying document written by a campaigning organization that was strongly opposed to present government policy – an unwelcome revelation for some Anglicans and others, given the contentious nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU (and the Council of Europe).  It may be a surprise for some to learn the level of involvement of the Church of England in the European institutions, despite the fact that ‘its policy on Europe has been framed by a succession of papers which have been endorsed by the General Synod’.  However, this would be an understandable misapprehension given the Church’s public statements on Europe.  Only last year, the Europe Bishops’ Panel was described on the CofE website as ‘as a light touch coordinating point of reference for items affecting the Church’s relationship with Europe and the EU’ . . . not an agent in itself but a vehicle through which the Board and Councils of the Archbishops’ Council can work on European affairs should that be helpful’, [emphasis added].  Similar wording was used in Challenges for the new Quinquennium in which the strategic nature of involvement Europe for the next five years was dismissed in a single phrase ‘[the Church] has to have an eye to the wider international context, both the importance of the European setting and the Church’s interconnectedness with the Christian family in all continents’.

However, the current European Affairs web page gives a more instructive, if brief, overview of European involvement, stating:

‘Wherever possible the Church tries to work in partnership with other churches in Europe. The primary vehicle for doing so is the Conference of European Churches, the regional ecumenical organization in Europe that has offices in Brussels, Geneva and Strasbourg.  On matters of legal and legislative concern, the Church works ecumenically through CLAS, the Churches Legislative Advisory Service.’

The recent initiatives of the chair of the Europe Panel, The Rt Revd Christopher Hill, the Bishop of Guildford, and other members of the Panel are also highlighted, but notably absent is any information or link from this page to the Diocese of Europe, the Church’s Representative to the EU, or the Europe Bulletin on the CofE’s own site, hidden away under ‘Working with other Churches’.

Whilst comfortable with the Church’s general approach to Europe and its response to the Inquiry, one is left with a degree of uncertainty on the level to which is it committed to Europe.  We are informed that ‘[t]he Church’s thinking on Europe is framed by the [2004] Synodical paperthe Church of England and Europe’ –  a substantial document, but in view of the many changes that have occurred in Europe and in the Church in the last 8 years, a revision is probably in order.

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