Conservative MP Lucy Allan has challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury directly on his ‘robust’ intervention in Priti Patel’s (presently thwarted) policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. “When the Church takes a strong political stance, it forgets that many of its congregation, who do not share its view, will feel alienated and unwelcome,” she told him, and then proceeded to ask her question.
The Archbishop of Canterbury responded: “We’re making a moral point based on our belief that every person is made in God’s image, and the calling from Christ to love our neighbour. For that same reason, yes absolutely – everyone is welcome in the Church of England.”
And his response caused something of a ‘pile-on’ for poor Lucy Allan, with hundreds of those who loathe Tories basically telling her that she doesn’t understand the Bible, bashing her over the head with Leviticus 19:34, or ranting that loving your neighbour doesn’t involve carting them off to Africa or tagging them or doing other. “Whingeing Conservative MP for #Telford plays the victim because the Church of England disagrees with the UK Govt’s immoral, inhumane & unlawful treatment of immigrants,” and so on, and so on.
Lucy Allan is both right and wrong. She is right to draw attention to the way the Church of England sometimes damages its own mission to the nation by giving the impression (or tweeting the actuality) that those who vote Conservative or support Brexit are somehow deficient in discernment, devoid of basic humanity and lacking in compassion. But she is wrong in her belief that the Church should not take “a strong political stance” on any matter. Christianity is incarnational: the sacred temple dwells in the muck and stench of the world, and is very much in the world to affect it for good and guide it toward truth. And if speaking truth to power means anything, it is that the Christian is sometimes called to take a strong political stance, or a perceived strong political stance, and even die for it.
Whether the proposed flying asylum seekers to a hotel in Rwanda calls for such a stance is debatable, but it is a hill which every single Bishop in the House of Lords has apparently chosen to die on. Their letter to the Times was unequivocal and uniquely univocal:
Whether or not the first deportation flight leaves Britain today for Rwanda, this policy should shame us as a nation. Rwanda is a brave country recovering from catastrophic genocide. The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries. Those to be deported to Rwanda have had no chance to appeal, or reunite with family in Britain. They have had no consideration of their asylum claim, recognition of their medical or other needs, or any attempt to understand their predicament.
Many are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors. Many are Iranians, Eritreans and Sudanese citizens, who have an asylum grant rate of at least 88 per cent. These are people Jesus had in mind as he said when we offer hospitality to a stranger, we do it for him. They are the vulnerable that the Old Testament calls us to value. We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law — which protects the right to claim asylum.
We must end the evil trafficking; many churches are involved in fighting this evil. This needs global co-operation across every level of society. To reduce dangerous journeys to the UK we need safe routes: the church will continue to advocate for them. But deportations — and the potential forced return of asylum seekers to their home countries — are not the way.
This immoral policy shames Britain.
The Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury; the Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York; the Right Rev Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London; the Right Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham; the Right Rev David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham; the Right Rev John Inge, Bishop of Worcester; the Right Rev Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry; the Right Rev Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford; the Right Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle; the Right Rev Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans; the Right Rev Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough; the Right Rev Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely; the Right Rev Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark; the Right Rev Nicholas Baines, Bishop of Leeds; the Right Rev Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester; the Right Rev Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester; the Right Rev Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol; the Right Rev Libby Lane, Bishop of Derby; the Right Rev Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn; the Right Rev David Walker, Bishop of Manchester; the Right Rev Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Chelmsford; the Right Rev Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter; the Right Rev Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford; the Right Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich; the Right Rev Paul Williams, Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham
Interestingly, the Archbishop of Rwanda, the Very Rev’d Dr Laurent Mbanda, doesn’t agree with his episcopal co-religionists:
Archbishop Mbanda says accepting the asylum seekers in Rwanda will help alleviate a global crisis and the whole issue of migration and people without a home.
He said that was not a burden of one person but a burden that countries should share.
Having spent most of his life as a refugee before returning to Rwanda to live, the archbishop says he knows what it is like to be without a home.
Despite his ‘lived experience’ as a refugee in Burundi, and despite his manifest theological learning and depth of knowledge of the Christian mission of the Province of the Anglican Church of Rwanda, his intervention will be ever-so-slightly sneered at by the Lords Spiritual, who will unanimously call to mind, if not univocally whisper, ‘baggage’…
The Anglican Churches in Africa have an increasingly tense relationship with their mother church over Biblical interpretations of issues like same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Mbanda says he believes that as colonial days are over, the African churches have to think and speak for themselves.
The Anglican Church, the cleric says, is led by one among equals, and that it is time for the African churches to challenge their mother church, not waiting for the Archbishop of Canterbury to tell them what to do.
And so Archbishop Laurent Mbanda is ‘sifted’ and conveniently dispatched.
He isn’t attending the Lambeth Conference anyway, so many (all?) of the Bishops of the Church of England (which is all of them) who oppose the policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda won’t feel any obligation at all to respond to or otherwise engage with the Archbishop Laurent Mbanda, who, by supporting a policy which the Archbishop of Canterbury says in ‘ungodly’, is manifestly showing himself to be lacking in godliness, compassion and grace.
But this is probably the sort of “strong political stance” of which Lucy Allan approves.
And that’s the problem with bishops taking strong political stances on the important moral issues of the day: conservatives who agree with them say, “Yea! Preach it brother!”; and socialists or liberals who agree with them say, “Yea! Preach it, sister!” And each side accuses the other of being something less than Christian, or lacking in love and compassion, or of being ‘ungodly’.
And in the din of disagreement, beneath the muck and stench of mutual animosity and acrimony, the name of Jesus is trampled underfoot.
For the record, the Rwanda policy is appalling, and Lucy Allan probably knows that, and so does Priti Patel.
But even more appalling is the people-smuggling industry which exploits the weak and destitute by promising a land flowing with free accommodation and free education and free healthcare and perpetual benefits paid in cash. And all this can be theirs for the bargain price of £13,500. The fact that 24,000 have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2014 is of no concern to the people smugglers; and neither is the fact that 52 people have died crossing the English Channel since 2018. The risk of death is no deterrent when the prize is free board and lodging and welfare for life with very little chance of deportation.
If Lucy Allan were to ask the Bishops what should be done, they will tell her of the need for greater cooperation with France (as though that hasn’t been tried), or the need for a global solution (‘How long, O Lord?’), or ‘more safe routes’ for those fleeing war or famine or persecution, or who just want the chance to make a better life in the UK. But advocates of ‘more safe routes’ don’t seem to appreciate that this ‘solution’ is rather like adding two extra lanes to the M25 in order to mitigate congestion: the result is that the traffic expands to fill the new space, and congestion remains the same, or worse.
Opening ‘more safe routes’ will not only not deter those who profit from people smuggling or people trafficking, they will open the gates to hundreds of thousands more who want to make a better life for themselves in the UK. Where will they all live? And at what burden to the already oppressed taxpayer? There are presently an estimated 4.4 million people in the world who are fleeing their homelands and seeking asylum in another country. Given the hostility they face in Greece and in France, who wouldn’t prefer the tranquility and stability and boundless hospitality of the UK?
Perhaps the Bishops might explain how many of these 4.4 million the UK should welcome; and what the policy should be when that cap is reached? And perhaps they might also explain how they think ‘more safe routes’ will act as any kind of solution to those who are determined to profit from smuggling and trafficking the weak and destitute. And then perhaps they might also explain why 70% of these weak and destitute are all young, fit and male, and how welcoming them conflicts with the scriptural exhortation to care for orphans and widows.
And when they have done this, perhaps they might explain why they have singled out this particular Conservative policy uniquely to condemn robustly and unanimously from their parliamentary and media pulpits, as opposed to, say, any of Labour’s policies over the years which have served to undermine the family and boost abortion?
The Church of England should indeed take “a strong political stance” on important moral-political issues, but its missional vocation to foster national unity is hindered when the Bishops unanimously assert a visceral partisanship, indeed contempt for things which C/conservatives hold sincerely and believe deeply. Their present focus is on diversity of ethnicity and sex (if not sexuality) in the cause of greater equality, but if no way is found to restore social, political and intellectual diversity among senior clergy, then, as Lucy Allan MP observes, people will indeed be increasingly alienated as they cease to feel that their political aspirations and social perspectives are reflected (or at least treated with respect) at the highest levels.
“Is a Conservative welcome in the Church of England?”