Having listened to Mrs. Emily Thornbury MP being questioned by Evan Davis on Newsnight recently I began to understand the Labour Party’s position on Brexit. Unlike the Tory Party (which seems to have wholeheartedly embraced a ‘hard’ Brexit) or the Liberal Democrat Party (which clearly opposes it) the Labour Party, containing as it does large numbers of both Leavers and Remainers, recognises it needs to be a Broad Church. Whilst the country voted by a margin of less than 10% to leave the EU, it needs to accommodate members of both camps. And, in that, I see clear parallels with the Church of England.
Whilst I am not a Church historian I recognise (as I am sure others do) the similarities between Brexit and the age of Reformation. Until the 16th cent. the Church in England had owed allegiance to the Roman Church and many of the laws of this country were dependent on decisions in Rome. Both the separation of the Church in England from the Church of Rome and Brexit were preceded by many years of agitation. Popularist preachers, like John Wycliffe and the Lollards, stirred up anti-Catholic feelings and prepared the way for the Acts of Supremacy which gradually made English law supreme and led to the declaration that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England’ (Article 37).
In spite of this formal separation there was a substantial minority who objected and wished to remain part of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a fact that Henry VIII (1509 – 1547), inspite of initiating the separation of England from Rome did not intend to adopt Protestantism in its entirety and religious doctrine didn’t change (1). Whilst Henry persecuted extreme Protestants there were many views as to what separation meant. As has sometimes happened in the aftermath of Brexit those who wanted to remain part of the Roman Church were abused and persecuted and some were killed.
It was under the Regency Council which governed during the minority of his successor, Edward VI (1547 – 1553), that Protestant teaching began to change the faith of the English Church and eroded much of the Catholic heritage which Henry VIII had desired to retain. This resulted in unrest and a number of protest marches including the Western Rebellion (1549).
Mary I (1553 – 1558) was declared Queen by popular demand (clearly not a Referendum but something similar) after people re-acted against the perceived excesses of Edward. Many realised she would reverse most of the previous legislation that had separated England from Rome and those who had financially benefited from the break were determined that would not happen. (2) This only caused greater division, persecution and disorder in the country which lasted until her death.
The genius of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) was to unite a divided country. This she did by enabling the Church of England to be broad enough in its doctrine to hold various views whilst maintaining the separation that had occurred. The ‘Elizabethan Religious Settlement’ was a response to the religious divisions in England. A series of Acts and revisions to the Prayer Book intended to avoid adopting any one theology to the exclusion of another with the intention of enabling people with many different theological perceptions to belong to the one Church. The Church of England was not part of the Roman Catholic Church (thus fulfilling the desires of the Leavers) but nor was it wholly Protestant and its teaching was still rooted in much Catholic theology. Thus, hopefully, appealing to remainers.
It seems to me that the present difficulties faced by the Labour Party are not dissimilar to the situation in England in the late 16th cent. Both leavers (Protestants) and remainers (Catholics) were struggling to dominate society and Catholics were hated for wanting to remain united with Rome. Is it overly simple to say that whilst ‘Leavers’ have a clear home with the Tories and ‘Remainers’ with the Liberal Democrats the Labour Party is, like the Church of England, seeking to offer a place for all. And, like the Church of England, is accused of not knowing where it stands? Or not having any clear teaching? It seemed to me that Mrs. Thornbury was saying that the Labour Party was trying to find a way for people with different views to live together realising that if we don't we may be eternally divided or dominated by one view. It is not an easy choice – to try and be broad enough for all – it won’t satisfy those seeking a clear choice and it might anger those who can’t cope with difference. It is not easy to create a home where those with different views can live together. But, like the Elizabethan Settlement, it may offer an umbrella under which many can shelter and the Labour Party might take heart from looking into this period in the history of England which occurred almost exactly 400 years ago.
(1) ‘The Religious Policy of King Henry VIII’; Jeff Hobbs
(2) ‘The Church 1553 to 1558’; C. N. Trueman