CLEARLY, it takes a political row to get religion on to the front pages of the national press these days, even on Easter Day. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon, which criticised the Home Office’s plan to relocate some asylum-seekers to Rwanda on a one-way ticket, clearly stung the Conservative-inclined papers to a frothing rage. How convenient to displace the inconvenient criticisms of the policy’s evident shortcomings to the man in the mitre! Good, said my wife, a curate in Canterbury diocese: at least he’s stirred a reaction.
And what a reaction! I am not sure I have ever heard of a sermon being described as a rant before. It probably hasn’t happened since the days of John Knox. But that’s how the Daily Express chose to describe Archbishop Welby’s words in its front-page headline on Monday, as it rounded up what we old political correspondents used to call the Usual Suspects to comment on things that they only dimly understood through a glass darkly.
In my day, to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, rentamouth Tories were always “senior” MPs: you never quoted a “junior” or “obscure” backbencher when you needed a bit of outrage. Nowadays, they no longer bother. Thus, the Express uncovered someone called Ben Bradley, the 32- year-old Tory MP for Mansfield — so, both junior and obscure — who unburdened himself of the opinion: “I think we separated the Church from the State a long time ago so commenting on government policy is not Justin Welby’s job. He’s usually well out of tune with public opinion and he undermines the role of the Church when he comes out with daft statements like this.”
Did I miss disestablishment somehow? I think we can probably be sure that Mr Bradley is not a regular churchgoer, if he thinks that the clergy should not comment on ethical and moral issues. Otherwise, what’s left? Understanding of the constitutional settlement seems lacking at all levels of the Express, too: you clearly can’t get the staff these days.
MEANWHILE, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, took to The Times to demand not ethics, but policy proposals, from a ten-minute sermon: “We are taking bold and innovative steps and it’s surprising that those institutions that criticize the plans fail to offer their own solutions.” I suppose that, if the Archbishop did that, he would earn the wrath of Mr Bradley for meddling in politics.
Really, the Tories ought to co-ordinate their outrage better, or perhaps just think things through. The former minister John Redwood accused the Archbishop of siding with people-smugglers, in a tweet picked up by several papers: “Why does he want to live with law breaking and dangerous voyages?” It was possibly not the best week for a Tory MP to talk about siding with law-breakers, in the light of the Metropolitan Police’s fines on the Prime Minister and Chancellor for breaking lockdown regulations.
The Daily Telegraph was also frosty, though with a slightly more reasoned tone. Nick Timothy who, as Theresa May’s adviser, was one of those who devised the hostile-environment policy towards immigrants, is now a Telegraph columnist, and he at least dimly perceived that there might be a few problems with the Government’s wheeze in relation to human-rights legislation. The Archbishop was taken to task for not including Denmark’s asylum-policy debate in his sermon, but Mr Timothy concluded: “Compassion need not mean naivety, and toughness need not mean cruelty,” — a pity that did not occur to him when the Government that he served decided to make immigrants feel as unwelcome and uncomfortable as possible.
Incidentally, the Telegraph has started to refer to the Archbishop as Mr Welby. In my day on the paper, 35 years ago, we strove punctiliously to get titles right. Is this a conscious change of style? Or just an attempt at levelling up?
Clare Foges — also a former Downing Street adviser — had a more cynical explanation in her column in The Times for the government policy: “Not only has it helped to distract us from the parties scandal, it has roused the Tories’ usual culture war enemies to rage about the immorality of the scheme. . . some voters will conclude that this must be the right policy as it has provoked all the right people.” So to the ranks of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott we must presumably now add Red Justin.
In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins engaged more directly with the religious intervention: “Welby is professionally entitled to claim priestly infallibility, though his distinction between a policy’s details, which he leaves ‘to politics’ and its principles that must ‘stand the judgement of God’ needs exegesis . . . when a state-established church summons God to condemn evil policy it merely confuses the forces that need mustering against it. They are forces not of religion, but of reason and common humanity. They must now confront a desperate politician’s latest attempt to save his own skin.”
Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian.
Andrew Brown is away.