The Archbishop of Canterbury has agreed in principle to chair a series of ‘Citizens’ forums’ meetings on Brexit – despite facing heavy criticism for wading into the debate.
The Most Revd Justin Welby, said being asked to chair the forum was an “unexpected privilege”, but would only take part if his conditions were met.
He added: “I am honoured to be approached and would be willing to accept in principle, subject to some conditions which have not yet been met.
“The main three are first, and indispensable, that the forum should not be a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form.
“That power can only be exercised by the government and MPs in parliament. A forum must be open to all possibilities.
“Second, it has cross-party support (although its members will not be politicians).
“Third, the process must have time to be properly organised.”
Reports from The Times suggested MPs wanting to stop a no-deal Brexit were in talks with the Most Rev Justin Welby to chair a public conference to advise politicians on the best way forward for Brexit, with meetings reportedly due to be held at Coventry Cathedral next month.
A group of MPs, including a Brexiteer, have gone public with the move and formally written to the archbishop asking him to conduct citizens’ assembly proceedings following a meeting on Tuesday of key Commons figures opposed to no-deal.
The politicians want to hold public meetings, known as a citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ forums, where people with a host of differing views on Britain’s divorce from Brussels and from across the spectrum of society could come together in a bid to find a solution to the current stalemate.
The letter to Archbishop Welby was signed by Labour MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, the SNP’s Angus MacNeil, Conservative Party MP Dame Caroline Spelman, and independent member Frank Field. All but veteran MP Mr Field are pro-EU politicians.
In a letter to the Church of England’s most senior cleric, the MPs wrote: “Given the polarisation we have all experienced across the UK and within Parliament, we believe that a citizens’ forum on Brexit would be an opportunity to consider how to heal the divisions in our country since the Brexit referendum.
“We are writing to ask if you would be willing to oversee such a process.
“The forum would benefit greatly if you were willing to chair an independent panel that reflects the diversity of views throughout the UK to oversee the forum and ensure it is fairly run, and to work with other partners to see if it is possible to make such a forum happen.
“A process which involves a bit less shouting and a bit more listening and considering could help the whole country.”
The citizens’ forum model has been used in the UK previously to seek solutions for social care and was successfully used in Ireland when preparing the wording of the referendum question last year on whether to legalise abortion.
It comes after former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said getting involved in the forum, which is seen by some as a vehicle designed to frustrate Brexit, was not a wise decision.
He told The Times: “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.”
Britons were exhausted from being told why the result of the Brexit referendum should be overturned, according to Mark Francois, the vice-chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs.
Mr Francois added in the paper: “I suspect they will not be overjoyed by having it rubbed in by the Archbishop of Canterbury to boot.”eading Commons figures opposed to breaking EU ties without an agreement in place were due to meet on Tuesday, with The Times reporting Most Rev Justin Welby was in talks to chair subsequent citizens’ assemblies at Coventry Cathedral next month.
The archbishop received support from his fellow clergymen, the Bishop of Buckingham.
The Right Rev Alan Wilson said: “In a mature democracy people would not be afraid of doing this, because it would show what people’s concerns and fears and hopes and aspirations around this subject were.”
Following the 2016 referendum, the archbishop told the House of Lords that the campaign had resulted in an “out-welling of poison and hatred” in Britain.
He added: “It is essential not only in this house but for the leaders of both sides and throughout our society to challenge the attacks, the xenophobia and the racism that seem to have been felt to be acceptable at least for a while.”