We are today a very long way from the days when the Church of England was described as “the Conservative Party at prayer”. If anything, Tory politicians are today perhaps too enthusiastic in their vituperation of the national church.
Even if the House of Lords did not reserve a few seats for the bishops, Justin Welby and the rest would be entirely within their rights to assay their views on current events; Christianity is not one of those religions that encourages uninterest in the material world. And so long as we do maintain the Lords Spiritual, they are not obliged to vote with the Government.
(Besides which, if the Conservatives do have concerns about an ideological monoculture in the Church, they again have their own refusal to govern to blame. It was only Gordon Brown who forsook the prime minister’s role in senior clerical appointments; they might have revived the power.)
On top of all that, there is also the danger of being the boy who cried wolf: that legitimate criticism gets lots in the fog of the so-called culture wars and dismissed.
Because when it comes to the revelation that scores of asylum seekers are converting to Christianity, allegedly to game the system, the Church does have a case to answer. Especially when more than one of these converts have gone on to commit criminal or terrorist acts.
The gambit is simple enough. Many asylum seekers hail from Middle Eastern countries where Christians are persecuted; some, such as Iraq, have seen the recent collapse of religious communities that date back to the very earliest days of the church. Convert to Christianity, and your country of origin is at once made into an unsafe place to which you cannot be returned.
(One thinks of the Iranian rapist who became a critic of the regime in Tehran during his appeal.)
Priti Patel and Suella Braverman claim that dubious conversions are a serious problem, with the latter writing in the Daily Telegraph:
“While at the Home Office, I became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims. They are well-known within the migrant communities and, upon arrival in the UK, migrants are directed to these churches as a one-stop shop to bolster their asylum case.”
For its part, the Church insists that vetting asylum seekers is the Home Office’s responsibility – and this is, ultimately, correct. We cannot expect a member of the clergy to run background checks or have reliable access to the sort of information that might indicate that an individual asylum-seeker is a security risk.
As for the sincerity of a conversion, on one level that is ultimately unknowable (save by God). Yet given that a nominal conversion does have a material impact on someone’s asylum claim – and thus, people have strong reasons to seek one out in bad faith – the Church surely has a responsibility to take the politicians’ claims seriously.
This is especially so when there is strong circumstantial evidence that the system is indeed being abused.
For example, in the wake of the attempting bombing of Liverpool Women’s Hospital in 2021 by Emad Jamil Al Swealmeen, who had been confirmed at Liverpool Cathedral a few years before, it was reported that the dean of the cathedral claimed in 2016 to have confirmed 200 asylum seekers in just four years.
To this, he added a crucial caveat: “I can’t think of a single example of somebody who already had British citizenship converting here with us from Islam to Christianity.”
Modern clerics who seem keener on the church’s social mission than the theology is, somewhat ironically, an old stereotype at this point. But it hardly stretches credulity to imagine that there might be some church leaders keener to do something nice for someone in perceived need than probe too deeply into the innermost recesses of their soul.
The question is, what to do about it? A spiritually-exacting process of converting to the Church of England sounds almost a contradiction in terms; it certainly isn’t going to adopt something like the rigorous programme of religious schooling and exams required by, for example, converts to some branches of Judaism.
Nor is being shouted at by Conservative politicians likely to move the hearts of careless shepherds, however justified some of the anger might be. Which means the problem is ultimately for the politicians to solve, and that means confronting once again the current legal order around refugees and asylum.
We have looked before at the general problem of how to regulate refugee flows in a world that is increasingly mobile and where vast number of people would potentially qualify for asylum. But in the specific context of the recent acid attack, one suspects that if there is any part of the current rules that may have to give, it is the absolute principle of non-refoulement – that people should not be returned to an unsafe country.
It is an important principle, and nobody would suggest abandoning it altogether. But if an individual abuses the asylum system to commit terrible crimes here, it isn’t obvious that they should nonetheless be the United Kingdom’s responsibility. Nor if they face, say, life imprisonment for crimes they committed in that country of origin, so long as said crime wasn’t something like “being gay”.
Nor, to be even more specific, if their claim is rejected, and their appeal rests on things they have only done after they got here. There will always be people who try to game the rules; responsibility for stopping them must rest, ultimately, with those who set the rules.