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Angela Tilby: Welby’s Easter sermon deepened divisions    

22 April 2022


Archbishop Welby talks with members of the congregation outside Canterbury Cathedral, after the Easter Day Sung Eucharist

Archbishop Welby talks with members of the congregation outside Canterbury Cathedral, after the Easter Day Sung Eucharist

LIKE many others, I happen to agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury in deploring the Government’s recently announced plan to remove asylum-seekers to Rwanda for “processing”. Not only because it is inhumane, and, as he rightly said, does not belong in a nation formed by Christian values, but also because, while it may have some deterrent effect, it is unlikely to do much to solve the problem of large numbers of displaced people struggling to find a new homeland in this and other Western European countries.

Unfortunately, the Easter sermon in which the Archbishop expressed his view was not well-judged, well-composed, or well-delivered; and these things matter, because what he achieved was not the introduction of an Easter-inspired perspective on a difficult issue, but a deepening of already existing divisions.

Two things particularly troubled me. The first was the lack of any hint of Easter joy. The sermon barely reflected the scriptures of the day, or the festive character of the liturgy. Easter seemed to be taken as read, while the real message itself was condemnation: first, for the Russian war, then for other places of conflict in the world, then on the Rwanda policy, and then on “evil people” in general. (There was a moment of salutation to Passover and Eid.)

But to call the Rwanda policy “opposite of the nature of God” was strange and ungrammatical, both literally and theologically: a dramatic phrase aimed to win quick assent from those already convinced rather than to help persuade the unconvinced. It is not good enough simply to condemn. Argument matters. There is a genuine problem with unregulated immigration: we have failed to deter the extortioners selling unsafe passage across the Channel; we have not found post-Brexit ways of managing our borders.

The lack of recognition of all this meant that it was all too easy for his message to be dismissed by conservative-minded people, whether on the Right or Left, many of them Christians, who want to live in a reasonably harmonious and orderly society, in which traditional values are not simply despised by the metropolitan elite. Instead of reaching out to such people in the spirit of Easter, the Archbishop chose to invoke judgement, which they will have heard as being against them.

There are times when it is right to preach judgement, but, perhaps, this Easter, when many are, for good reason, still frightened and apprehensive, was not the best time. The uneasy-sounding applause at the end of the sermon said it all. This was performance more than it was gospel. I couldn’t help wondering whether the Archbishop’s advisers merely wanted to ensure that his Easter message would not go unreported. If that is so, then they succeeded beyond anything that they could have hoped for, although not, perhaps, in terms of the Easter message.

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