Archbishop Welby undermines his office by taking sides on immigration


The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken in the House of Lords about the migrant crisis. But in doing so, he has run the risk of impairing his office as Archbishop. 

Not because the body politic has any problems with giving him a platform to speak there (the presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords was part of a political compromise intended to confer social and political stability at a particular point in our national history. Not everyone likes it, but it is accepted for as long as it is not abused), but because it risks failing to discern the litmus test Jesus put before his challengers: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and that which is God’s”

The ambitious Caesar thinks everything is his of course. And we know that everything is God’s. So, what is the principle here? It has something to do with not confusing different categories of values and priorities – political means and ends and spiritual means and ends. All we know of history suggests that is not an easy task and requires particular attention.

A place in the legislature, not achieved by any particular moral merit or political acumen, must present a great temptation for Anglican bishops to express their personal political opinions. We all, each one of us, are possessed by a disproportionate sense of our political maturity and insight. But, if we were scrupulously honest, few or us have always been right in our economic, social and even ethical judgements over the years. And that alone ought to give us pause in our self-confidence whatever platform we occupy.

But if you are a bishop or archbishop, there is an ever more challenging problem. In speaking from their episcopal office, they present themselves in the public space as representing an authority on ethical and moral problems that their office confers on them. They speak for an ancient wisdom tradition that offers authoritative insights into the complexities of the human condition.

This is challenging enough for Catholics who come to moral issues with the benefit of the finely-honed catechism and magisterium. But here Anglicans are at a disadvantage for there is no magisterium in liberal Protestantism.

The particular challenge that large-scale immigration poses is mainly expressed in the political and cultural dilemmas it poses. Those who flood into the country illegally having paid large sums to accomplish it are by definition not the weakest or the most vulnerable. An argument can be made for saying that they are the most confident, adventurous, versatile and economically resourced. Applying victimhood without any subtlety is not a compelling political or ethical argument. 

But the immigration crisis also comes with powerful political resonance. Like few other issues it separates the Right from the Left. 

The Left like neither borders nor the concept of nationality. They favour immigration without, as far as one can tell from asking them, limits. (A new outlet broadcast that they asked Mr. Welby what his proposed upper limit for immigration was. Lambeth Palace declined to provide one.) The Right think that society flourishes better with borders and with a coherent national identity with limits on the dilution multiculturalism imposes.

So how can a bishop pontificate about the migrant crisis without representing a political perspective? It would take extreme care, and considerable caution and nuance. But that is not what Mr. Welby is offering his audience.

And what are the pastoral consequences of relying on political rhetoric and politicised ethics?

The answer is that he alienates all those for whom he has pastoral charge who take a different ethical and political view to his.

In this case of the C of E, this is no small matter. The whole EUY debate demonstrated that senior clergy were almost universally on the Left, and a majority of the laity were largely on the middle and Right.

The consequences of this are obvious. By taking the overtly political stance he is over immigration and claiming that it represents the only authentic Christian ethical position, he alienates the majority of those who rely on his pastoral office for their relationship with the Church.

But there are two other reasons that should give him pause for thought. That or two reason enough to make him pause before speaking politically in the House of Lords. There is another reason equally important to a theologian and it involves interpretation of the biblical passage which St Matthew describes in chapter 25, dealing with the sheep and the goats.

The key to the interpretation of the passage involves discovering what Jesus means by his brethren. “Insofar as you’ll do it to the least of these my brothers.”

Aquinas’ Catena Aurea which compiles patristic comments on the biblical texts points us to the conclusion that for most patristic commentators the poor, wounded, imprisoned, hungry and thirsty are the early Christian community suffering for their discipleship.

He only ever uses the term “brother” about those who are committed to his vision of the kingdom, and to follow him as an act of fidelity and devotion. 

Gospels are full of his warnings about the sufferings of Christians, and the cost to those who follow him of rejection repudiation by the rest of society.

If you exercise compassion towards those who suffer for following Jesus, you exercise compassion towards him.

If this is the case, then the Biblical texts so often relied on by politically sensitised liberal Protestants don’t mean what they take them to mean. 

In losing sight of the significance of the keyword “brethren” it’s all too easy to turn this passage into universalistic statement of caring for anyone in trouble. However, Jesus does teach about that, particularly in the parable of the good Samaritan.

There we have the dominical teaching that using your own resources to care for those in trouble is an expression of the moral duty we have to love our neighbour and those we live among. But this is an act of personal responsibility. Not an act of statecraft.

The third problem that the Archbishop’s stance on immigration throws up is that it favours one set of ethical principles over another set, which is the perennial challenge of ethics. It always involves the weighing of two or more different sets of ethical priorities and exercising a degree of discernment not only over the relative merits of each, but also the outcomes, intended and otherwise, of making that choice.

It ought to be a matter of serious concern that we hear nothing from the Archbishop of Canterbury about the merits of the other side of the argument. If he were offering to arbitrate as a mature ethicist weighing Christian principles across history, politics and a spectrum of consciences, we might be grateful for his intervention.

But to be presented with only one set of ethical principles set in the language and culture of one political party, promoting only one aspect of the Christian conscience, diminishes those claims to speak on behalf of the Gospels, the Church and his office.