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. Instead the very opposite is often the case and we are discovering a referendum often decides nothing. A referendum is actually the sign of a impoverished democracy.
Last year’s Scottish referendum result has not made the issue of independence go away. Rather at some, yet to be agreed, 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 23rd may well resolve nothing.
Mature democracy is not about dictatorship about 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 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. Even a seemingly apparent binary topic such as gender we are discovery 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 in even beginning to comprehend divinity. We are offered four gospels of Jesus, not one authorised biography, recognising that it is only in the interplay and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might we 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 approached to life, placing right at the beginning of this new religious movement the certainly 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 near 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 23rd June, 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.