Madeleine Davies

Should Bishops look to their own houses?

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm

I suspect that Church of England’s Bishops are used to their pronouncements being dismissed, ignored, or translated into headlines suggesting that they are on the brink of raiding the Lambeth Palace armoury (it must have one?) and declaring all-out war with Number 10. But I was a bit taken aback by the extent of the hostility to their latest suggestion. In a private letter to the Prime Minister sent last September, 84 bishops recommended that the UK increase the number of refugees it takes over the next five years from 20,000 to 50,000. When it failed to precipitate a “substantive reply” they went public.

The day the Observer splashed the letter on its front page, the Church’s Parliamentary Adviser, Richard Chapman expressed the hope that the Prime Minister was correct in his assertion that Britain and Twitter are “not the same thing”. I think his hope is well-founded. But I also think it is still worth subjecting some of the criticism to scrutiny.

Much of it focused on the fact that Bishops live in big houses and are, apparently, unwilling to open them up to some of the 50,000 they want to welcome to our shores. In fact, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chelmsford have done just that. “We can’t ask people to do something we’re not offering to do ourselves,” the latter told Premier.

But the reality is that councils don’t want spare rooms. Well-meaning offers of help have been gently rebuffed.

“It is extremely heart-warming to see so many people wanting to help vulnerable people in crisis by opening their homes and offering care and safety, but this is only a short term solution to a long term problem,” said a recent statement from the LGA’s Asylum, Migration and Refugee Task Group. Refugees need a permanent home. Councils want the Government to provide “full funding to support individuals and families until they are granted asylum or they are safely returned to their own country”. They are open to offers of entire properties, and interest from potential foster parents, but they don’t want the Bishop of Manchester’s fourth bedroom. The same point was made at a recent London Hosting event I attended, and by Professor Simon Brake of Coventry Council, one of the first local authorities to sign up to the resettlement programme.

Some were angry to hear the Bishop of Manchester suggest that Syrians would prefer to have their own accommodation rather than “try to share the breakfast table with a couple whose language they don’t understand and whose culture is alien to them”. But I think it was an honest comment that helpfully raises questions about sustainable integration. The Syrians that do arrive in the UK will require more than bricks and mortar and access to hospitals and schools. The scheme in Coventry is predicated on cooperation between the council and local civil society. As Professor Brake puts it: “You could not simply drop a load of people into a city without thoughtful preparation”. When I turned up at the Bishop of Coventry’s house this summer (he was hosting an Eid celebration for some of the latest Syrian arrivals), I met the Mayor, charity workers, Muslims and Christians, and, tearing around the Bishop’s lawn, tiny Syrian girls on pink trucks. The Bishop of Coventry may not have offered a room in his house, but he is part of a broader community effort to reach out and plug refugees in. Funding the resettlement is crucial, to avoid anxieties about stretched resources, as the LGA points out, but the scheme will work best if is accompanied by efforts at integration. When I asked a Lebanese aid worker recently whether Europe should take more numbers he warned that:

“Resettling people without a plan for integration can be problematic. . . I can understand why they are trying to come to Europe: they consider it a promised land; but I’m afraid they are going to get a reality check quickly.”

I suspect what lies behind some of the criticism of Dr Walker is the assumption of hypocrisy: he expects others to “endure” what he himself will not. In fact, from what I know of him, he’s not unsympathetic to concerns about integration. Last year I heard him express sympathy for

“People who had been living in a place for a long time, and had seen that place change around them, in ways in which they no longer felt it was theirs. . . They felt that when they moved into that area 50 or 60 years earlier, they had bought into it as it was then, and found it was hollowed out under their own feet. They felt alien in their own community.”

He gets that change frightens people and that it needs to be managed and communicated carefully.

Also underpinning the criticism is the suspicion that the Bench of Bishops is, at heart, a bunch of bleeding-heart left-wingers who like to use any stick to bash the Government. But taking in more refugees is not, fundamentally, a left-wing policy. My sense is that the same letter would have been sent to the Government had a victorious Ed Miliband presided over a similar resettlement programme. It’s also worth noting that the Archbishop of Canterbury seems acutely aware of the risks of being partisan. He has praised the capacity of the market to be an “extraordinarily efficient mechanism”, described wealth as “life-giving water” and suggested that Iain Duncan Smith knows far more than most about poverty.

Other criticisms doing the round fall into the “what-aboutery” category. In fact, I think it is fair enough to ask why the cottage at Lambeth Palace is being made available now, and not to homeless people earlier. But it’s simply false to say that the Bishops don’t care about the homeless, or persecuted Christians.

Having said all of this, it would be great to see Bishops heeding the Bishop of Chelmsford’s call to look to their own houses. Syrian families may not need a spare room, But destitute migrants do. As do homeless teenagers.

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