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Is a referendum really good democracy?

EU referendum 390CFAndrew Bryant wonders whether a referendum is really the best way to make major decisions affecting society or the church.

The offer of a referendum is often portrayed as the best kind of democracy as it puts the decision directly into the hands of the people.  It gives the people their voice and lets them decide.  However, the very opposite is often the case and we are discovering that a referendum often decides nothing. A referendum is actually the sign of an impoverished democracy.
Last year's Scottish referendum result has not made the issue of independence go away.  Rather at some point, yet to be determined, it seems almost certain there will be another referendum.  Already some Brexit supporters have said that if the vote goes narrowly against them they will campaign for a second referendum. June 23 may well resolve nothing.
Mature democracy is not about dictatorship by the majority.  It is about seeking a consensus, valuing a diversity of views, honouring minority opinions. The present referendum is a reflection of the failure of our democratic process to build a strong coalition of views for the good of the nation.
Instead we are seduced into believing that a major issue can be reduced to a simple binary decision: in/out.  From BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to the tabloid newspapers, all major issues are too often reduced to a binary format: right/wrong, good/bad, left/right etc.  There is no room for subtlety of thought.
In reality the world is more complicated than this.  We are discovering  that even a seemingly apparent binary topic such as gender has more diversity than simple statements about male/female and requires a more subtle and open conversation.
The Christian tradition has long understood the need to move beyond binary thinking.  A Trinitarian God affirms the need for a diversity of experience and understanding just to  begin to comprehend divinity.  We are offered four gospels of Jesus, not one authorised biography, recognising that it is only in the interplay between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that we might begin to fully comprehend who Jesus really is.  
Jesus selects twelve disciples, not all rooted in the rabbinic tradition but from diverse backgrounds and with distinctive approaches to life, placing right at the beginning of this new religious movement the certainty that the good news will be passed on in diverse ways and with diverse experiences.
In the modern era the Church of England has very nearly torn itself asunder by slipping into binary thinking over human sexuality, and in particular equal marriage, echoing in its synods the worst of the Westminster Punch and Judy show.  But the discovery of the "shared conversation" process has offered a new way of exploring together, listening and learning from one another that moves the conversations beyond a brutal binary right/wrong approach.  Maybe in this experience the Church has something to offer to the nation at a time of division.
Whatever happens on June 23, the real task for our nation will only just be beginning.  How do we learn to live well together amidst our diversity and differences? How do we heal the bitterness and build a shared future?  The answer will lie not in another referendum but in a more mature democracy built not on simplistic binary choices but the valuing and holding together in creative tension of many and diverse voices.
The image above is courtesy of https://pixabay.com   

Andrew BryantCFThe Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry
here and can follow him via his new Twitter account @AndyBry3.

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