18 October 2015

Are anti-Tory bishops doing all they can to help refugees?


During the Tory Party Conference Manchester’s Anglican Cathedral hosted one of the largest anti-austerity events. Speakers included the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Daily Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire. Union leader Dave Ward. And the full-time working class champion Owen Jones. A brief look at the Bishop of Manchester’s Twitter feed suggests he won’t have disapproved of this event – he was, in fact, scheduled to appear at some sort of candlelit vigil against austerity. His Tweets include a wide range of attacks on the government’s austerity, welfare and immigration policies.

I can’t be the only Tory-minded person, therefore, to have woken up this morning and sighed when I read that 84 bishops had gone public with their concerns about the Prime Minister’s apparent lack of compassion / urgency / resolve to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis. This is, after all, a government that has spent more taxpayers’ money on aid to Syria than any other EU nation. Attacking Tory governments is, nonetheless, what today’s Church of England does. That and closing down empty churches with dwindling congregations. The two are not unrelated, of course. Too many of us see the Church as one of the last defenders of a form of state welfare that has failed the poorest members of society. Woolly thinking hasn’t just infected the Church’s social policy – it’s infected much of its wider mission, too.

I wonder if Justin Welby is beginning to understand this. It is interesting, for example, that neither he nor John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, have signed today’s open letter. Both have been willing to wade into controversial party politics before but that was pre-election when there was a widespread expectation that Tory rule was coming to an end. There is now a widespread expectation that Conservative government might last for a decade. Lambeth and Bishopthorpe Palaces might have decided that constant confrontation could be counterproductive. If they have made that decision it might already be too late. The Telegraph reports this morning that one “senior government adviser” had said “we don’t give a s*** about the bishops” – this time in response to their protests at plans to further deregulate Sunday trading.

Personally, I regard it as a great shame that today’s intervention on Syria will be greeted so dismissively by the Tories. While Britain was wise not to emulate Angela Merkel and throw open our borders to refugees from Syria there is more that we can do and should do. But we have to move carefully. The backlash now being seen in Germany is proving that open borders are not going to be sustainable in a democracy.  51% of Germans are “scared” at the level of immigration coming into their country. Some fear that the number of refugees heading for Germany could rise to 1.5 million. Much more than the 800,000 previously predicted.

Two big policy moves will make accepting more Syrian refugees more popular with the British public. Move one would be to do as the Migration Watch campaigning organization has recommended. Britain would take a much larger number of humanitarian refugees in return for being able to control the number of economic refugees coming into Britain. Would the Church support that trade off? Perhaps they think we should take everyone but politics is about choosing and priorities. And, forced to choose, humanitarian refugees should be at the top of the Church’s list.

Secondly, we should do as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has recommended and operate a policy that takes refugees who are least likely to find peace and security in the Middle East region. For Dr Carey that meant persecuted Christians. “Britain should make Syrian Christians a priority because they are a particularly vulnerable group,” he wrote last month. I would add gay people. They are also least likely to be safe in a region falling under the dark shadow of militant and extreme forms of Islam.

Finally, some extra PR advice to the Church. Twitter is full this morning of people talking about bishops’ palaces. The Archbishop Cranmer blogger asks “How many of the 84 bishops demanding that “each and all of us play our parts” are opening their homes to Syrian refugees?” Another Tweets: “Bishops want UK to take 50,000 refugees. Well, plenty of space in your Cathedrals lads and plenty of money to keep them. Away you go!” And one more: “On top of their Sunday sermons bishops are to spend the day answering Qs about how many refugees they intend to take into their own home.” They aren’t unreasonable Tweets. The Bible’s command is for each of us to love our neighbour. The command is not “ask the government and other taxpayers in smaller houses to love your neighbour”. Churches do a great deal of great social work. The Cinnamon Network has documented it. But are the bishops themselves walking the walk as well as talking the talk?

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute is published on 4th November.