Poor interviewing of Christian asylum-seekers
From Judge Stephen Pacey
Sir, — As a Christian, and about-to-retire immigration judge, I am pleased that Theresa May (News, 9 December) has supported our faith. What a great shame, then, that in her many years as Home Secretary she did not arrange for better training for her decision-makers who dealt with claims to asylum by those fearing persecution on the basis of their Christianity.
Below are just some of all the questions I have encountered:
1. What colour is the Bible? When I last visited a church bookshop, I saw Bibles in six different colours, none of them black, which is what, I suspect, the interviewer wanted.
2. How many books are there in the New Testament? I certainly could not give an accurate answer, and I doubt that many Christians would be able to, without looking it up.
3. Can you explain the Holy Trinity? In other words, can you, in the course of an interview, explain that which has challenged theologians for thousands of years.
And remember: inane questions like these would be asked in the course of an interview that would typically last several hours, and contain hundreds of questions.
Things might not be so bad if decision-makers were not always quick to seize upon actual or perceived inconsistencies or incorrect answers. Unfortunately, they usually do, even though there may only be a tiny proportion of such answers in the interview. There seems no ability or willingness to place such answers in the context of the interview as a whole, in order properly to evaluate the totality. Similarly, there seems no appreciation that better-directed questions might give a profound insight into the life of the asylum-seeker. For example: why are you Christian? what difference has being a Christian made to your life? and why did Jesus die?
There is the right of appeal, but asylum-seekers do not always exercise this. Many come from countries where there is no rule of law. They, then, have no idea of an independent judiciary. It is high time that standards of decision-making in the Home Office improved, and that Mrs May practised what she preached.
3 Dickinson Way
Newark, Notts NG23 6FF
Ripostes to Canon Tilby’s allegation of clerical ‘family-olatry’ at Christmas
From the Archdeacon of Portsdown
Sir, — I should like to give as a Christmas gift to Canon Angela Tilby a copy of Nicholas Allan’s wonderful short picture book, Jesus’ Day Off, in which a worn-out Saviour, who has been failing to produce the required miracles, takes a little time off to play, does cartwheels across the desert, and goes for a long donkey ride.
He rediscovers what, of course, he already knew: that God loves him, not for the length of his completed task-list, but because he is simply the heart of God’s joyful creation.
I reread it when I realise I’ve forgotten that we are saved not by works but by grace, and when I know I need some rest and recreation to top up the self-emptying tendencies of Christian ministry.
Clergy families give sacrificially every day of the week. The vicarage doorbell doesn’t stop on a day off: keys to the flower cupboard are lost, relatives of the dying seek gentle accompaniment for the final hours of life, and sandwiches and money for nappies are requested by desperate people who know that at least here they will be received with kindness.
Usually everyone takes it in their stride, even if they sometimes allow themselves a moment to ask why it is their mum, dad, partner, or parent who has to have so much time for everyone else when their family is longing for a whole day off together. It’s therefore unfair to caricature modern clergy, as Canon Tilby does (Comment, 9 December), as idolising family life at the expense of duty and service.
Sacrifice is good, and clergy families do plenty of it. But sacrifice is only part of Christian witness, which is also about wholeness and abundant joy. Neglecting your family for the sake of an exhausting Christmas diary isn’t good for anyone; nor is it, I believe, what God demands.
Whether or not clergy care for young children and hope to open presents with them on Christmas morning, Christian ministry has to be fully embodied witness, and that means knitting together in prayer and action the ups and downs of faith, family, and community life in a way that might just about be compelling enough for “outsiders”, in the midst of their own complex and imperfect lives, to be convinced that God loves them too.
However large my midnight-mass congregation, however entertaining my all-age Christmas-morning sermon, whether or not my kids wait patiently at the back of church during the final handshakes, looking forward to Christmas lunch together, the only thing I really need to do as a priest at Christmas is to live out my belief that God loves each of us enough to have brought himself to us in the Bethlehem manger.
Christmas Day is not most clergy’s day off, and thankfully it’s not Jesus’s day off, or God’s either. It’s the day when we remember how God demonstrated his strong and eternal fatherly love for creation, when we experience how God knitted her brooding, motherly presence through the fabric of all her children’s lives.
As one half of a dual-ministry clergy couple with children of six, 11, and 13, I have sometimes got it right and sometimes wrong. I’m still apologising for the year when I accidentally turned off the oven on the way to church on Christmas morning and we all had to eat fish-finger sandwiches for our festive lunch.
But to those contemplating or beginning Christian ministry, please hear this: most days the joys do outweigh the sacrifices, and no one begrudges you some time off together. And to seasoned clergy families counting down the carol services to a bit of family time, please know that most of us are rooting for you.
May the joy of the Christ-child sustain us all until our next proper day off.
First Floor, Peninsular House
Portsmouth PO2 8HB
From the Revd Lynda Davies
Sir, — Despite reading Canon Angela Tilby’s article of 9 December several times, I still cannot believe the comments she makes. She speaks of hearing some remarks made by “a new curate” and “an ordinand” and then jumps to a massive over-generalisation by saying that “clergy and ministers today” put family life at Christmas above the needs of the parish.
I imagine that many clergy, in the middle of the busy season of carol services, Christingles, nativities, school assemblies, and concerts, besides fitting in pastoral visits, funerals, youth groups, and toddler groups, as well as several services on a Sunday, find her comments most insulting.
Our working lifestyles are frenetic because we regularly put the needs of the parish above those of our families. Rest assured that when the last service is over at noon on Christmas Day, my family will have my undivided attention, which will have been much deserved by them and me.
The New Rectory, High Street
Cambridge CB24 3BP
From Canon Eleanor Rance
Sir, — My son is about to experience his eighth Christmas. For the first four, I had PTO but was free to spend my time with him (though my husband was often at work as a pilot or on call). For the other years, over the Christmas period, our son has come with me to services, and spent time cared for by the family in equal measure. I had been ordained 13 years when he was born, and frequently spent Christmas a day’s drive from my family.
There are few in our congregations who are not juggling, whether they nip out for half an hour, leaving their elderly housebound mother, or hold Christmas dinner on one of the other 11 days of the feast because they are working in hospital or in the police station, whether they spend the best parts of the day in a car, or lonely in a bedsit while the baby sleeps feverishly through its latest cold.
And our services and events in this parish are not reduced to a “party for Baby Jesus” either. I hope that we focus with great care upon the wide range of people who will pass through our doors and the burdens they may be carrying.
I think the point that Canon Tilby has missed is that clergy parents are not so very different from real people. We juggle with those days when we want to be with our widowed father, and the dying parishioner; and at the Christmas lunch, and our son’s school play. We come home to requests for funerals that simply won’t fit in the diary unless we cancel a long-planned appointment. We, too, end Christmas Day feeling it has been bittersweet, and we have been torn in all directions and still not done all things well.
But we try to encourage our children to know that part of the day is, indeed, for them alone, that their parents were called to be clergy but also called to have them, and to love them; and we try to model in our family life in the rectory the idea that each of us is a precious child in the eyes of our God, and each worthy of some dedicated, nurturing time.
The nine criteria used to discern calling to ordained ministry do not include among them “is superhuman”. It does not surprise me that ordinands and curates in training approach this part of life with anxiety and trepidation. I hope that they may be encouraged to enjoy having a clergy home full of love and laughter, and a parish that is enriched because of all that clergy family life brings.
The Rectory, Chapel Lane
Shrewton SP3 4BX
From Becky Allright
Sir, — In a world where work for most people is God and families eat together on average, once a week, surely clergy should be modelling a better way to live.
Like Theresa May, I am the daughter of clergy. Unlike Mrs May’s father, it seems, my mother helped my siblings and me to understand that Christmas was a time to rejoice and celebrate, as Jesus had finally arrived. I knew she wanted to be with us to do that, and she worked hard in the face of much criticism to achieve that sense for her parishioners too.
A fresh-faced ordinand, I signed up to be a slave for Christ, not a slave to Common Worship. Could we also possibly refrain from recommending specific church and domestic arrangements? Surely we all have our own unique traditions to enjoy and maintain.
Enforced hospitality may not always be well received. I met someone recently whose father had stopped attending church, having been invited for lunch and being too embarrassed to say no.
16 The Garlands
York YO30 6NZ
Messiness a good substitute for enthusiasm
From Mr Chris Hudson
Sir, — Andrew Brown (Comment, 2 December) is absolutely right to be wary of anything in church life resembling the Corbynistas who in the last General Election doubled their membership but halved their share of the vote. Doctrinal purity and enthusiasm might be deeply satisfying, but they won’t necessarily connect with any population disenchanted with politics or religion. In the end, the “offering” has to be relevant to people’s everyday lives, and realistically transformative.
Perhaps when he has a spare moment, Mr Brown could try visiting a few Messy Churches to see one approach that is continuing to grow and attract thousands of previously unchurched families and individuals. If he does, we will happily offer him the same welcome we offer everyone else — but will try not to look too enthusiastic, though, if it helps.
11 Nursery Mews
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