By Mark Michael

A group of 25 Church of England diocesan bishops released an open letter yesterday saying the nation’s democracy is threatened by divisiveness and the potential impact on the poor from the planned exit from the European Union. The letter was released on the same day as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unexpected and controversial decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks, which will leave little time for legislators to consider alternative plans for the “no-deal Brexit” currently scheduled for October 31.

The group of bishops, which includes 15 of the 26 Lords spiritual who sit in the House of Lords, wrote: “The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.”

They express concern that the poor will be disproportionately harmed by the economic shocks that could come in response to a no-deal Brexit. They specially emphasize the vulnerability of Northern Ireland,  whose open border with the Republic of Ireland is widely seen as necessary for economic and social stability, writing: “The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English: respect for the concerns on both sides of the border is essential.”

The bishops warn they are “seeing the evidence of division in every part of England.”  A forced decision about such a crucial matter, they believe, could have disastrous consequences for the nation. “It is unlikely, however, that leaving without an agreement, regardless of consequences, will lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country. ‘Getting Brexit done’ will not happen on exit day, and we have to be transparent about the years of work ahead of us in bringing the country together for a better future. We also need to be frank about the potential costs.”

The bishops’ letter came on the heels of an announcement on Tuesday by Archbishop Justin Welby had agreed to chair a citizen’s forum in Coventry to discuss Brexit and national reconciliation. The Church Times reports that the forum had been requested by six senior cross-party members of parliament, who cited a pressing social need. In a letter to the archbishop, the six politicians wrote: “Given the polarisation we have all experienced across the UK and in Parliament, we believe that a Citizens’ Forum on Brexit would be an opportunity to consider how to deal with divisions in our country since the Brexit referendum.”

Welby said that the conditions for the forum were still being negotiated, but that the participants would not be politicians. The citizens’ forum also could not, he said, function as “a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form.”  Welby told the BBC, “The need for national healing and eventually for a move towards reconciliation is essential, and will take much time, a deep commitment to the common good, and contributions from every source.”

Welby served as a canon of Coventry Cathedral from 2002 to 2007.  During that time he played a significant role in the international reconciliation work that has been at the center of the Cathedral’s ministry since its partial destruction during World War II.

The Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, whose diocese is located in a deprived region of Northern England that voted for Brexit by a 2/3rds majority, was hopeful about Welby’s response to the invitation.  He told The Times “There appears to be a new mood in global politics that delights in division, and the willingness of the Archbishop to exercise his ministry as a bridge-builder and reconciler is a potent way of bearing witness to the Christ who prays that all might be one.”

The archbishop’s decision, however, attracted criticism from a number of Brexit supporters, including former Tory party leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, who called the forum “deeply inappropriate.”  In an interview with The Times, Smith noted,  “I generally don’t criticise the archbishop but he shouldn’t allow himself to be tempted into what is essentially a very political issue right now. This assembly is designed to destabilise Boris Johnson’s position. As such I hope he will recognise the deeply political nature of this.”

In comments to The Church Times, The Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry described his see city as a particularly fitting setting for an open discussion of Britain’s current challenges: “Coventry’s story says that, where something is broken, rebuild it. When hope is running out, revive it. What conflict disrupts, let peace restore. Where there’s division, reconcile. So it’s entirely fitting for a citizens’ forum, chaired by the Archbishop, to come to Coventry.

“My hope is that it will not only help this country to heal, hope, and reconcile, but will reach out to our neighbours in Europe to mend what the last years have damaged, and to show that whatever the form of our political relationship in any moment of history, the peoples of our lands are bound together in deeper ties of common life and humanity.”

Cocksworth is a member of the Living Church Foundation.