The day was spent visiting the Roman remains at Caerwent and Caerleon. It was fourteen years since I had been at Caerleon; we had gone there in pursuit of King Arthur. Along with Caerleon in Wales, we had gone to Glastonbury and South Cadbury in Somerset, and to Tintagel in Cornwall. It had been a time for reflecting on the idea of Arthur as being a leader who tried to hold onto the benefits of the Roman Empire for Britain. Perhaps Arthur had been one of the few who understood how important had been Roman civilisation for ordinary people – without them, the world would be a different place.
Visit the remains of any of the Roman towns and you are left with no doubt as to what an advanced society they were compared to the 1500 years that were to follow. The Romans achieved extraordinary things; the Roman Army had just 30 legions. They held the Empire together with a standing army of just 180,000 men. Europe sank into frequent anarchy and chaos, life became nasty, brutish and short. The past was gone and could not be recovered.
It was the peace and unity provided by the Roman Empire that allowed the Christian church to become established and to flourish. The missionary journeys made by Paul the Apostle were possible because as a citizen of the Empire he enjoyed a right to freedom of movement. The deeply theological writings of Paul could only have been comprehensible in a society where philosophy and intellectual inquiry were treated as matters of the utmost importance. The church could only have grown as it did in the context of order and of respect for religious belief.
European citizenship, freedom of movement, commitment to reason and reflection, peace and stability, the importance of respect for the rights of individuals to believe as they chose: Paul would have recognised much from his time in the Europe of twenty centuries later and Paul would have understood if there had been a Romano-British leader who had sought to hold onto the benefits of the Empire.
With the appointment of a new prime minister this week who is determined on Britain departing from Europe, I wondered how many Christians appreciated the importance of a single Europe in the history of the church, how many would have understood Arthur’s attachment to the ways of the Empire. What I discovered was completely counter-intuitive: research from the LSE last year showed that it was Anglicans who voted for Brexit and that it was evangelicals who were more likely to have voted to remain. Members of the very church that was most shaped by the Christendom that developed from the days of the Roman Empire were those who voted to turn their back on the Europe that Paul would have recognized.
King Arthur would have been confused by it all.