While a theology student at Leeds University in the 1980s I became involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), spending many hours picketing Barclays Bank successfully encouraging students to boycott apartheid’s number one bank.
When dissertation time came round I decided to write mine on, ‘The role of the Anglican Church in the struggle against apartheid’. This involved reading Naught for Your Comfort, my first encounter with Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.
Huddleston, an Anglican priest, was sent by his religious order from England to South Africa in the 1950s and in response to the moral evil of apartheid he wrote Naught for Your Comfort, the book’s title taken from G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. It went on to sell 250,000 copies, encouraging thousands to join the fledgling AAM.
Huddleston was then recalled from South Africa by the Anglican Church, as they saw him as a trouble maker, as were other church figures who spoke out in the 60s and 70s. It was only when the leadership of the church passed to an indigenous black leadership – Tutu, Boesak, Chikane – did the church establishment within South Africa emerge on the right side of the moral dividing line that was apartheid.
In his declining years with his health failing Huddleston became increasingly impatient to see the end of apartheid. He worried he would die before Mandela was released, before the first multi-racial elections could occur.
As President of the AAM he would exalt the staff, myself included, and the supporters to do more, to go the extra mile for his beloved South Africa, in so doing he deployed the following motivational and funny story.
On a visit to his monastic home, the College of the Resurrection near Leeds, he was seated with his elderly colleagues one supper time discussing the pros and cons of buying a new suit when advanced age had been reached, was it worth the investment? Where upon the oldest member of the community piped up, “New suit, new suit, I worry about buying green bananas”.
The church as an institution has a long history of ‘calling it wrong’ and being on the side of the oppressor as spelt out dramatically in Road to Damascus; Kairos and Conversion a blazing piece of liberation theology written in 1989 by Christians in what we then referred to as the Third World.
One of the consequences of the church ‘calling it wrong’ over the centuries has been for the church today to avoid controversial and difficult issues, especially where Christians are to be found on both sides of the debate.
Being in or our out of the European Union is not in anyway akin to being for or against apartheid. But the leave or remain debate does involve political conflict and does see individual Christians on both sides of the debate. One side argues that life for the people of the North East will be better if we remain, the other side says life will be better if we leave. Both sides agree this is the biggest political decision of our lifetimes.
Which for many, myself included, begs the question, ‘And what does the church think?’
The governing body of the Church of England, the General Synod, met last in February and did not discuss the EU referendum. They next meet in July, when the referendum will have passed. Maybe I have missed it but I haven’t seen anything from the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Baptists or the Salvation Army. The Roman Catholic church has seen a pronouncement from Rome that the Pope would like to see the UK stay in the EU but this doesn’t seem to have translated into a clear Catholic church voice inside the UK.
As we enter the final ten weeks of the EU referendum campaign Chesterton’s words seem an apt description of the road ahead; ‘I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save the sky grows darker yet, And the sea rises higher’.
At the very least I think the church should provide guidance on which are the salient issues that voters should be considering as they make up their mind as to which way to vote.