Great War commemorations are now a regular part of many community calendars, and it
has often been said – there were very few atheists in the trenches before the
whistles blew and the troops went ‘over the top’ into battle.
Taking that World War One ethos as a benchmark, the Christian Church needs to move to the forefront of community life and take up a forward position as a calming influence in what is becoming an increasingly volatile and toxic political climate.
That is not to say that the Christian Churches should adopt political positions on Brexit, but that they must recognise that their flocks contain many Brexiteers and Remainers – and a lot of very worried and parishioners afraid of the future.
The Brexit challenge for the Christian Churches reminds me of the situation which faced congregations in 1998 in the aftermath of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, when many clerics found themselves facing a split church between the Yes and No camps, especially in the Protestant community.
During the Great War, the Army padres and chaplains played a key role in maintaining morale among the troops in the face of such needless slaughter. The Christian Churches need to adopt this
morale-boosting role amid the severe political uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
Of course, many churches and clerics will maintain they are already doing this using the strategy of intercessory prayers during worship, but mumbling a few prayers for common sense in government
during a Bible study event cannot be classified as pro-active – especially among the unchurched.
During times of perceived threats to the Union, many Christians who were active in Unionist politics organised Days of Prayer in town halls and Orange halls.
Some of those opposed to Brexit have called for campaigns of civil disobedience and passive resistance. This has the potential to end up being hijacked by extremists and militants resulting in
violence against the police.
However, just as the Peace People held rallies for peace in Ireland in the late 1970s, perhaps the Christian Churches could help defuse tensions by holding peace rallies whereby those Churches
could use such demonstrations to reach out to their communities, especially to folk who have no faith, cannot or do not attend worship.
One factor is certain – the clergy cannot hide in their pulpits and, like Pontius Pilate of Biblical times, wash their hands of the Brexit debacle. Now is a time for action by the Churches, not fluffy bunny-style words of comfort.
The Churches on this island cannot simply leave it to the governments in London and Dublin to prepare for either a ‘do deal’ or ‘any deal’ or ‘some deal’ Brexit. The Churches must have their plans
in places, especially if Brexit does go economically ‘pear-shaped’ and communities have financial hardships, with austerity and even homelessness rapidly rising.
Some individual places of worship are going to have to swallow their pride and snootiness and open up their church halls for the homeless and those who cannot afford to pay rent or mortgages and have
to leave their homes.
Likewise, if there are food shortages, churches will have to organise soup kitchens to feed the needy if existing food banks cannot cope. People who are starving or who have lost their homes through
no fault of their own do not want, or need, pious Christians fobbing them off with platitudes, such as ‘we will remember you in our thoughts and prayers’!
These needy people want food and a place to sleep. Similarly, the Churches must maintain a politically neutral stance; they must avoid the scenario whereby the public gets the perception – that’s a pro-Leave denomination, or that is an anti-Brexit or Remain fellowship.
The empty stomach of someone who voted Leave is just as challenging as the empty tummy of a person who voted Remain.
Likewise, just as some people turn to their faith and church in a time of crisis, the Christian Churches must also be ready to help those who blame God for their predicament as a result of Brexit turning
There is the real danger that if things go bad for some families, they could actually turn away from their faith. The Churches must be read - not to judge or condemn these people with their pew
gossip, but to ensure these people are helped.
There is also the added danger that if the Churches do not step up to the mark in combating any austerity as a result of Brexit, that the so-called ‘black marketeers’ will step into the vacuum and
charge crazy prices either for food or a place to sleep.
The ‘super rich’ in society may be able to soak up any severe austerity challenges caused by a Brexit backlash, but not those currently living on the breadline, or caught in an existing poverty trap.
Indeed, some denominations may even have to consider the unthinkable to afford to carry out their Christian civic responsibilities – they may have to sell their riches to give to the poor!
Some Christian denominations may have acquired tremendous wealth and treasures over the centuries which could be converted into hard cash to buy food, clothing or provide shelters.
Would such denominations be prepared to sacrifice this wealth and follow the advice of Jesus and donate that money to the poor, or would they be like the rich young ruler in Biblical times who did
not want to follow Jesus because he wanted to keep his wealth.
In the coming months, it will not just be the politicians who will have searching challenges to face; the Christian Churches will – not might – find themselves on the spot in combating austerity.
In hard practical terms, if a person turned up on their doorstep of a church, cold, hungry, in dire need of food and rest – what will the ‘suited and booted’ worshippers do? In reality, the key question
which the Christian Churches must ask themselves is – what would Jesus do?
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com