(First appeared in Clare Champion, Friday, July 17, 2020)
The holy places of the world are not by any means perfect. They can be highly compromised, chaotic, corrupt; a place to fleece pilgrims and purvey artefacts of dubious authenticity. They can even at times be amongst the most dangerous places on earth. But something profound nevertheless redeems them. In all the human mess and nonsense, the false clamour and self-serving piety, both beneath and above all that lies the simple beauty and truth of God’s presence, some intimation of the divine, the transcendent. I believe the EU parliament to be one such place.
Some years ago I hosted a conference of Church of England bishops’ chaplains. An annual event, the conference usually met in religious retreat centres around England discussing such matters as Bishop’s filing systems, how to advise our bishops about dealing with naughty vicars and the latest legislation from General Synod. Heady stuff indeed, but bishops’ chaplains are a curious breed, influence without power, the voice of the attendant; the eunuch of the ecclesiastical world.
This year it was the turn of the Diocese in Europe, my diocese at the time, to host the event. We chose a particular and unique format, befitting a very particular and unique diocese. I had a message to convey, biased by my own perspective of course, but certainly heartfelt and sincere. I recognized the danger of being seen to be manipulative, but felt that owning up to the process would give the delegates at least the opportunity to know what was going on.
The first day we visited the battlefield of Paschendale and the museum of that terrible conflict, the scale of which beggars the imagination. The subsequent visit to Tyne Cott Cemetery, largely in silence, as we wandered along the interminable lines of graves gave some shape, some human reality, to the statistics of death. One could stop from time to time to reflect that each stone marked not just one life cruelly snuffed out, but also countless possibilities and generations that might have been, cascading into the future, but which now will never be. Our day ended as the last post sounded at the Menin gate, as it has each night ever since the dedication of the Memorial in 1928. For some brief moments the sadness and the waste and the futility were all too palpable and personal.
The next day I took the group to the EU Parliament and asked them whether they might try to see this often criticized and maligned place through different eyes. To see past the vast cost, the sometimes bewildering bureaucracy, the scheming, the politicking, the expense accounts, the gravy train; all of which I willingly, if not happily concede. To see that beneath and above all that was the desire never to take peace in Europe for granted. To never again sacrifice our children’s blood on the altar of national rivalries and tribal greed and fear and hate.
Sadly, these are dangers that are re-emerging today. Largely born and educated in a post-war world of peace, rarely having fought in combat or had their town or village invaded, today’s modern breed of politician seems all too willing to trade short term and national political gain for longer term and international peace and stability. Perhaps they believe that the EU is sufficiently large and amorphous to be able to take some point-scoring without significant harm.
Admittedly great institutions are rarely felled in one blow, but they remain vulnerable to the death of a thousand cuts. We only have to look at the League of Nations, created for the most noble of reasons and yet fatally undermined by its members.
In an interview, before Brexit, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme Margaret Macmillan, Professor of History at the University of Oxford, and Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to Washington both voiced grave concerns about the viability of many international institutions formed after WWII, most notably the UN and the EU. Christopher Meyer spoke of a ‘great unraveling’ of international consensus and an ‘existential threat’ to the EU. Professor Macmillan observed that we assume the institutions will always be around and so we can be rude about them, before adding that history shows that institutions can and have faded away in the past through neglect and disunity. Sadly, they both shared a deepening sense of pessimism, that in recent crises such as the Greek economy and Syrian refugees, our politicians were retreating to national prejudices and perspectives. In hindsight, how right they were.
That the EU parliament is urgently in need of reform, I have no doubt, that its worse excesses should be curbed, I do not dispute. But in the pursuit of peace, of collaboration between nations and the recognition of our common humanity and mutual dependency, in this continuing goal, I believe that the EU parliament is very much a holy place.