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Archdeacon of Auckland rejects claims of ‘conveyor-belt’ conversions 

25 April 2024

Written evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee casts doubt on accusations

The Ven. Rick Simpson

The Ven. Rick Simpson

CLAIMS that churches are involved in a “conveyor belt” of baptisms to support asylum applications have been rebutted by the Archdeacon of Auckland in the diocese of Durham, the Ven. Rick Simpson.

In Febuary, the Home Affairs Committee heard evidence from a former Church of England priest, the Revd Matthew Firth, who repeated claims that he had made in the media about witnessing a “conveyor belt” of cases, in which asylum-seekers were being baptised so that they could say that they risked persecution if deported (News, 16 February).

Mr Firth was Priest-in-Charge of St Cuthbert’s, Darlington, between 2018 and 2020, before leaving the C of E to become a minister in the Free Church of England.

Giving evidence to the committee, he said that he had been approached every two to three weeks by groups of six or seven asylum-seekers who wanted to be baptised, but had turned them down, after which they did not attend church again.

In written evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, dated 5 April, and published on the Parliament website last weekend, Archdeacon Simpson questions Mr Firth’s claims. The Archdeacon’s evidence is based on interviews with people familiar with the church, and statistics on baptisms before, during, and after Mr Firth’s tenure.

The numbers referred to by Mr Firth would suggest that, over a two-year period, there had been about 284 people approaching him for baptism, Archdeacon Simpson writes. He says, however, that “no else involved with St Cuthbert’s in 2018-2020 recognises this picture, or anything approximating to it”.

He refers to an article published in The Daily Telegraph in February, in which Mr Firth was reported to have referred to “around 20 cases where failed asylum-seekers sought baptisms at his church to support their appeals for leave to remain in the UK”.

The Archdeacon asks: “Which is Mr Firth alleging: that the number of people who had a first failed asylum claim and then sought baptism at St Cuthbert’s was ‘around 20’, or that it was c.284?”

A lay minister who was present at most of the weekly office-hour sessions at which baptism bookings were made is quoted by Archdeacon Simpson as saying that, on one occasion, four or five asylum-seekers came, but that this was a one-off.

People involved in the church’s work supporting refugees told Archdeacon Simpson that, over the two-year period, approximately 30­­ to 35 asylum-seekers attended the church at one time or another.

Mr Firth told the committee that he had discovered a permissive approach to baptism when he had arrived at St Cuthbert’s, and had set about to change this.

Archdeacon Simpson writes, however, that people who arranged baptisms during that period told him that they had always had a “rigorous” approach to baptism, even before Mr Firth’s arrival, and that they “then continued to act diligently, as they had before, though some wondered why Mr Firth did not take a greater personal interest and role in this”.

Archdeacon Simpson’s evidence also describes Mr Firth’s assertion that he was a “whistleblower” as “deepy problematic”.

“The first time that Mr Firth brought this matter to the attention of anyone it was not to a senior church leader but to the Daily Telegraph, and this was six years later, in 2024. . .

“Why did a minister who claims he was encountering hundreds of suspicious baptism applications, and who says that he believes senior church leaders should have taken action about this matter, not at any time report this to those leaders so that they could both be aware of it and take steps to address it?”

On Thursday afternoon Mr Firth published a statement on X/Twitter in which he described Mr Simpson’s evidence as “deeply problematic”, and alleging that it contained “a host of errors, terminological inexactitudes, and straw men”. 

The suggestion that he told the committee that around 284 asylum-seekers came to him requesting baptism is false, he says, and based on “an assumption” made by the chair. 

The official transcript of the hearing shows that Mr Firth told the committee that “significant groups of young male asylum-seekers, mainly Iranian and Syrian, were brought to me in sizable cohorts”. 

The chair, Dame Diana Johnson MP, asks “how big were the numbers?”, to which Mr Firth replies: “six or seven at a time”. She then asks how often this was happening, and Mr Firth replies: “every two or three weeks, you would get that number of people being brought”.

After clarifying that it was different people being brought each time, Dame Diana repeats her understanding of Mr Firth’s evidence — that “over a two-year period, six or seven people were brought every week,” and Mr Firth responds: “every two or three weeks a batch of six people — that sort of number — brought to me”. 

In his written evidence, Mr Simpson explains that his estimate of 284 splits the difference between the higher number implied by Mr Firth’s evidence — with seven people being brought every two weeks over a two-year period — with the lower figure, based on six people every three weeks.

After giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee hearing in April, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, told the Church Times that she thought the “negative rhetoric” around refugees “is going to be damaging to the life of some of our faithful church communities, who are trying to offer support and pastoral care to really vulnerable people” (News, 15 March).

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