I was invited yesterday to take part in a discussion this morning on ITV’s Good Morning Britain—but they wanted someone in the studio rather than on Zoom. The question to discuss was: does the Christian faith say something about politics, and should church leaders ‘interfere’ in politics. Introducing the item (at 7.20 am), the presenter Adil Ray guffawed ‘It’s extraordinary isn’t it? Only Britain and Iran have religious leaders sitting in their parliaments!’ The idea that Christians should contribute to political policy on the basis of their faith was seen as obviously mistaken.
My response to the request on the phone was:
Of course the Christian faith has an impact on politics! The central Christian prayer is ‘Our Father in heaven, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done.’ It would be very strange to think that God’s will does not include issues around politics.
I also said I thought they would struggle to find someone who thought that Christian leaders should not talk about politics—but I was wrong! David Peterson, who is Team Vicar at Grays Thurrock, was very clear:
We should worry about souls going to hell and not migrants going to Rwanda. We need to think about populating the kingdom of God, not the population of the United Kingdom. Jesus said give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. The church needs to be more biblical and less political. We are in the world but not of the world. Our role as church leaders is not to change the politics but to change people.
You can watch the discussion here:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned the government’s plans to crackdown on illegal immigration as 'morally unacceptable and politically impractical.'
Should religion stay out of politics?
Reverend David Peterson and @Raetheduke debate.
What do you think? pic.twitter.com/GJmDFwQuvx
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) May 11, 2023
I confess that I have some sympathy with this view. Statements that Church of England bishops make on political issues are widely reported, and it is an easy way to get into the headlines. Statements they make about discipleship, faith, and the need to respond to the gospel seem to be few and far between. There is an issue here about how and what the press choose to report—but I think there is an underlying communications issue too.
Yet there is an obvious problem with David’s approach here—the idea that we can just separate the ‘secular’ from the ‘religious’, and his counterpart Rae Duke expressed that well.
But what was it that provoked such a debate on prime-time morning television? It was Justin Welby’s speech in the Lord’s yesterday in opposition to the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill which is intended (amongst other things) to put an end to the small boats crossing the channel. There is a complex of issues at work here, which is why this kind of speech provokes so much reaction. Should we have bishops in the Lords when comparatively few people actually attend church on a Sunday? If so, should we not have other denotations and religious also represented statutorily? What does the Establishment of the Church of England now mean, and is it appropriate? Why have an unelected upper house at all? But if we are concerned at the democratic deficit here, what about the democratic deficit in the House of Commons created by our ‘first past the post’ election system?
On top of that, there are complex issues around the question of migration itself, and the way a Christian perspective addresses these issues. I think there are three sets of issues that church leaders need to consider when speaking about specific political issues and connecting those with faith.
1. Understanding the complexity of the issue itself
Justin’s comments were criticised in some quarters for advocating an ‘open door’ immigration policy as though this is obviously the ‘Christian’ response to the current situation. Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge in Yorkshire, challenges this understanding of Christian compassion:
I am not a theologian, but as an MP who is also a Christian and a supporter of the plans I am uncomfortable with the Archbishop’s language. The implied conclusion is that a completely open border policy would be the most moral policy for the Government, but I disagree. The truth is that Liberals, both inside and outside the Church, often misapply the definition of Christian compassion…
Deterrence is achieved by clear boundaries that are consistently enforced. Only a clear and unambiguous message, such as “if you come here illegally you will not be allowed to stay”, will act as an effective deterrent. Anything else is an invitation for continued exploitation. The best way to show compassion to those being trafficked around the world is to effectively deter the people-smuggling gangs, whose exploitation and criminality is surely the greatest evil within the discussion around illegal migration.
In fact, Justin’s comments (which you can read in full here) combine a suggestion of open-door migration (though rather ambiguously) with a fuller understanding of the difficulties.
Currently, 80% of refugees are still in the global south, protected by the poorest countries in the world. Of course, we cannot take everyone and nor should we, but this Bill has no sense at all of the long-term and of the global nature of the challenge that the world faces. It ignores the reality that migration must be engaged with at source, as well as in the Channel, as if we, as a country, were unrelated to the rest of the world.
‘Engaging at source’ is surely key to addressing the issued around migration—but that comment was not reported on. On the other hand, establishing ‘safe legal routes’ that Justin and others have commended will not address the issue of the small boats: the boats are mostly used by young, fit men who would not be prioritised by such safe routes which would surely priorities women, children, and the vulnerable. There is no indication that safe routes would end the small boats.
There are other major questions which must surely be addressed. Overall migration to the UK is massive; the last census revealed these astonishing figures:
Out of the 59.6 million usual residents in England and Wales in 2021, 49.6 million (83.2%) were born in the UK and 10.0 million (16.8%) were born outside the UK. This means that about one in six people in England and Wales were born outside the UK.
And controlled migration had continued unabated in the last couple of years; the most recent figures are just mind-boggling when you consider the implications, both short- and long-term:
In the year ending (YE) June 2022, long-term immigration into the UK was estimated at around 1.1 million. This is an estimated increase of 435,000 compared with the YE June 2021 (628,000).
This was primarily driven by the immigration of non-EU nationals, accounting for an estimated 66% of total immigration (704,000), an increase of 379,000 compared with the YE June 2021.
Unless the Government has had a policy of increasing housing provision by 20%, investing in the NHS by an additional 20%, building 20% more schools, and so on, then policy on migration is completely out of step with other policy. And the policy of filling skills gaps in the UK workforce by attracting people here from other countries is both inadequate and immoral. 25% of our doctors in the NHS were not trained here; the Government has failed to plan and provide for medical training, and instead is pulling talented and trained people from countries which have far greater need than we do. If a policy deserves the word ‘immoral’, surely it is this.
And what of the impact of change on those areas most affected by migration? There was a wonderful missed irony in a recent edition of Radio 4’s ‘Thinking aloud’ on Gentrification, where Charmaine Brown complained that the gentrification of Peckham and its neighbourhood meant that the black Afro-Caribbean community there was losing its identity—without any apparent awareness that that community was only there in the first place because it had, in turn, displaced the community that preceded it! Does any community have the right to continuity, and if so, how does that affect our approach to migration?
2. Connecting the issue with good theology
A short speech in the Lords is no place for a detailed theological argument—but even the one that Justin hinted at is not very persuasive.
And finally, as one might expect from these benches, in the New Testament, in Matthew Chapter 25, Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger.
The allusion is to the eschatological ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 25.34–36, 40).
The problem with Justin’s reading of this text is that this cannot be what Jesus meant. The ‘sheep’ were surprised to learn that, in helping the ‘least of these’, they were helping the King, when that could hardly be true of anyone who is showing compassion in accordance with Jesus’ teaching. And Jesus never calls the poor ‘the least of these my brethren’; that kinship term is consistently used for his own followers (see Matt 12.50). This ‘parable’ is about those who help the poor followers of Jesus (in parallel with Jesus saying about ‘a cup of cold water’ in Matt 10.42), not about the followers of Jesus helping the poor.
In one of the Twitter responses to those who had criticised Justin’s intervention, someone cites Lev 19.33–34:
When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native–born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
But what they omit to note is that Leviticus also requires that such foreigners are to conform to the culture and religious laws of Israel; when they come within the borders of the land, they are to receive the blessings of the land but also take on the obligations of citizens. This is hardly a recipe for multicultural pluralist migration.
There is, of course, a specific command to ‘show hospitality to strangers’ (Heb 13.2) which uses the wonderful term φιλοξενία, surely an antidote to xenophobia. But it is a big leap to turn this command into a national policy on migration and national identity.
There are many practical issues to consider around migration—but there are also theological ones. How do we understand the idea of nation? What values hold a nation together? What status do national values have? Do communities have a right to continuity of identity? Those exploring such questions are often scorned, but they are key issues that need understanding. It is striking that, both at Pentecost and in the vision of a multicultural people in Rev 7.9, the identities of those brought together are not eliminated, but remain in all their diversity. National, cultural, and linguistic identity matter.
Statements by church leaders on issues of migration need a better grounding in theological thinking that they are at present.
3. Location within a political spectrum
One of the most vexing things about these kinds of statements from Anglican bishops is not about the individual statements themselves, but in the pattern in which they are made. It feels as if they all come from one part of the political spectrum. (I have not done any objective analysis of this—but this is my strong sense and it appears to be confirmed by wider reaction.)
So bishops find it easy to comment on migration in this way, but when did we last hear a bishop comment about abortion—despite the Church of England having a pretty clear and very ‘conservative’ position on this officially? We hear much comment about poverty and inequality—but when did a bishop advocate for the importance of marriage, and lobby the government to put in place policies that encouraged marriage? The Church does have a well-defined doctrinal position on this question—and research shows that this would benefit children in a whole range of ways.
The bench of bishops appears to be out of step on many of these issues not only with the country at large, but also with their own congregations. I am only aware of one out of more than the 100 current bishops who was pro-Brexit, when Anglicans voted for Brexit more than remain.
This suggests a somewhat lazy approach to social issues and the gospel. A friend passed this comment on to me:
Liberal immigration policy plays a really important role in a certain kind of progressive Christian ethic—it’s the last ethical position out there which is somewhat based on distinctively Christian doctrine/concerns (Galatians 3:28, the recognition that Christianity is in better shape in the Global South), but which also matches liberal opinion. Pretty much everywhere else, it’s hard to draw a line from Christian doctrine (as traditionally held) to liberal opinion (c.f., sexuality, environmental sustainability etc). But with immigration it’s much easier to make this connection. So, if you want to associate Christianity with liberal opinion, you end up playing to your strengths and talking a lot about immigration.
It is hard to see what the basis of this is, though, after the contortions of the sexuality debate. How do we know that one border policy is less godly than another? If Leviticus is irrelevant in the bedroom, it’s irrelevant at the border.
Bishops and other church leaders should be making comments about public policy and politics more generally. And the Church of England is in a particularly strong and privileged position to do this. But our bishops need to be commenting on a wider range of issues, from a wider range of perspectives, and with a better rooting in theology and the doctrine of their own Church.