„What profit is there in this Insular pride?“ Robert Isaac Wilberforce on English Isolationism

The United Kingdom is heading towards a referendum – to be held on 23rd June 2016 – which may herald the end of the country being part of the European Union. I am not  going to comment here on the current state of European Union politics and what might have led to the process of alienation between the UK and the rest of the European Union. I am only going to state: Today’s British – or rather – English love of isolationism is not new. It has history.

England (i.e. the United Kingdom without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has always considered itself to be something „special“. Something different. Even if the land south of the Borders and east of Offa’s dyke is relatively small. And this passion for being different from the rest of the world and especially from mainland Europe has become part of the English national identity.

Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802 – 1857), son of William Wilberforce, the well known slavery Abolitionist, had his thoughts about this English isolationism, although he was obviously not pondering the pros and cons of today’s „Brexit“. Robert Isaac Wilberforce was an Anglican clergyman based in Yorkshire who, as a member of the high church Oxford Movement, grew ever more catholic until, in 1855, he decided to join the Church of Rome. Part of his process of conversion was a growing conviction that the Protestant Church of England was historically not the product of a spiritual Reformation but rather the by-product of a political power struggle in the 16th century.

In a newspaper article in 1855 – after his conversion – Robert Isaac Wilberforce wrote about this episode of political history:

„Our Lord had commanded that His Church should always be one; but the Government of that Age declared that this Country should have a separate Church for itself, because its inhabitants were sufficient in themselves, without the intervention of foreigners. Since we are independent in temporals, they supposed that we must be so in spirituals also, and considered it an insult that men who were not Englishmen, should dictate our faith. (…)

But what profit ist there in this Insular pride, unless we could really obtain a different law, and different tribunals; and since the English must appear before the ‚Great White Throne‘ with their fellow-sinners, why should they seek for an immunity now which they cannot maintain hereafter?“

(Seven letters to the Editor of the Weekly Register in reply to the Rev. F. Meyrick’s article on Church-Authority, London, 1855, 29.)

What is this „insular pride“?

For Robert Isaac Wilberforce it was the claim of the Church of England back in the 16th and among his contemporaries in the 19th century that the English Church must remain separate from the Church of Rome and its earthly Primate, the pope as the successor of St. Peter. The Roman Catholic Wilberforce in 1855 could not fathom why any spiritual organisation which called itself „church“ should stay separate from Rome. Such a separation for him came close to a separation from the oneness of the body of Christ. It was truely schismatic.

Thus calls for self-sufficiency and non-intervention of foreigners apparently played an important role in English claims for non-popery, i.e. Anti-Catholicism in the 19th century. At least if we choose to believe Wilberforce’s somewhat biased account. Calls for the self-sufficiency and non-intervention of foreigners also play a crucial part in the current Brexit debate. They seem to be the steady bread of an ongoing English isolationism.

In the 19th century, the English slowly accepted the fact that Catholics could not be kept away from public roles within the UK forever. Maybe it is time that today’s citizens of England realize that not all initiatives that emerge from Strasbourg or Brussels are evil in their very nature and a discerning openness towards „mainland“ Europe is the appropriate attitude in the 21st century.


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