Why have the bishops of the Church of England become socialists at prayer?

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Following the government’s announcement that some asylum seekers arriving illegally in the UK would be sent to Rwanda, twenty-five Church of England Bishops (including a few whom I might have expected to know better) wrote to The Times, denouncing the plan as an ‘immoral policy’ which ‘shames Britain’.

The government has made it clear that the Rwanda deportation scheme will be aimed at single men crossing the channel by boat and in lorries, and is intended primarily to deter the evil trade of people trafficking. The hope is not that planeloads of people will be deported to Rwanda, but that men who might otherwise have sought to enter Britain by such illegal and dangerous methods will be dissuaded from making the attempt in the first place. People smugglers can make as much as £700k per Channel crossing, with up to forty desperate passengers in a tiny, overcrowded boat; to date, several hundred people have already died trying to make these crossings.

Meanwhile, those who do end up in Rwanda will not be going there as a punishment: published photos of the Rwandan government refugee facility are of bright and comfortable rooms reminiscent of a budget hotel, and those whose asylum applications succeed will be given the opportunity to settle in Rwanda permanently and build their lives there. Rwanda is not—as the Bishops and some other critics have made it sound—the Ninth Circle of Hell, but a well-organised and prosperous African country with record economic growth, which could no doubt benefit from the determination and industry of those willing to travel across the world to find safety.

Meanwhile, the Bishops offer no alternative to the British government’s innovate proposal to put an end to the people smuggling racket, after all previous efforts have failed. Perhaps they would simply like us to open our borders wide to all-comers, whether or not they have a legitimate reason for being here: it is easy for them to have a romanticised view of such ‘generosity’ when it is not they who personally suffer the sharp end of the consequences of uncontrolled immigration, including increased pressure on the housing market and depression of unskilled wages.

Given the Establishment of the Church of England, and the continued role of the Lords Spiritual, it is too simplistic to say (as some have) that bishops should simply ‘keep out of politics’: we need them to speak up on some of the great moral issues of the day, such as assisted suicide (on which subject their contributions have genuinely been helpful). Meanwhile, calls to disestablish the Church and evict the Bishops from the House of Lords are misguided: disestablishment would sever the last threads tying England to its roots as a Christian country, and surrender to becoming a completely secular state.

This is, however, far from being the first time the Bishops have made naïve left-wing forays into the political realm. As is well known, they were almost entirely united in their opposition to Brexit, which they frequently attacked: only one suffragan Bishop publicly declared his support for Britain’s departure from the European Union. It has been suggested that the rot set in when Gordon Brown voluntarily relinquished the Prime Minister’s prerogative to choose who should be appointed to Diocesan Sees from a list of two names submitted by the Crown Nominations Commission; but in truth the problem is of much longer standing. At least as far back as the 1980s, the majority view of the Bench of Bishops was in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament (a policy which made the Labour Party unelectable); since then, they have criticised everything from the Falklands War to various welfare reforms.

Labour as well as Conservative governments have been the targets of episcopal censure—but, significantly, the Bishops’ political criticisms unfailingly seem to come from the left. At a time when there is much hand-wringing about the need for the hierarchy of the Church of England to be more ‘representative’ of the people it serves, the bishops’ relentless leftward stance puts them out of step with half the country—and more than half the Church’s parishioners (the majority of whom have been consistently shown in surveys to support right-of-centre parties and political viewpoints).

Socialism has been described as a Christian heresy, and it is one to which twenty-first century Bishops (and clergy) seem especially prone. Indeed, if it were not for the fundamental reality of the Fall, socialism would probably work; well-intentioned ideas would be free of unintended consequences, and the lion really could lie down with the lamb. 

Until the Eschaton, however, that is not the world in which we live. Before they dust off their collective letter-writing pens again, the Bishops might consider that those who support policies such as the deportation of illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda do so not because they are heartless, but because—in the words of the American social theorist Thomas Sowell—in this life there are no solutions, but only trade-offs.

Prudence Dailey MBE, has been a member of General Synod from Oxford Diocese for over twenty years.