LONDON — As he tries to clamp down on migration, Rishi Sunak is fighting not only the left and right — but those acting on orders from on high.
The British prime minister is on a collision course with the Church of England’s bishops — 26 of whom are part of the U.K.’s legislature in the House of Lords — over a controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
The latest flashpoint comes Monday as the Rwanda Bill returns to the Lords for fresh scrutiny.
It’s led some Conservative MPs to question the clergy’s ancient role in parliament altogether — and the Tory party’s recent rightward tilt puts them on a path `to further conflict.
“The Church remains a kind of classically conservative institution, and there’s a sense in which the modern Conservative Party is more about smashing things up,” says Fergus Butler-Gallie, an author and vicar in a rural parish.
Britain is the only country apart from Iran where clerics take a seat in parliament. Five of the most senior bishops are automatically entitled to enter the House of Lords, while the remaining 21 places are filled by bishops from eligible dioceses in England.
These bishops are entitled to sit, speak and vote as members of the Lords.
Bishops will be among those lining up to register their displeasure as the Rwanda bill returns to the Lords Monday. The Church of England’s most senior cleric, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has already made his opposition clear, telling the House: “In the Christian tradition, we are told to welcome the stranger.”
Welby is one of the lead signatories to a Lords amendment which would force the government to get a ruling from the U.N. Human Rights Commission on whether Rwanda is a safe country before asylum seekers can be dispatched there.
Senior clergy have clashed with governments of different stripes many times in the past — be it over welfare cuts, international aid reductions, or the invasion of Iraq.
Madeleine Davies, senior writer at the Church Times, points out clerics “do tend to lean left of where the general public is on immigration and welfare,” highlighting public disagreements on these issues stretching back at least to the 1980s.
Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams provoked a major storm in 2011 when he spoke out against the Conservative-led coalition government’s program of cuts. And, in the Margaret Thatcher era, a damning report by bishops on the state of inner cities under the Tories triggered a war of words between party and church.
But it’s not every day that Conservative MPs, many of whom see themselves as traditionalists, feel moved to take aim at the bishops in public.
Andrew Selous, a Conservative MP who answers questions in the Commons related to the Church, tells POLITICO that bishops “will always have a role to speak truth to power” — but warns they “need to be careful not to give the impression there is only one view on an issue.”
Tory MP Chris Loder has gone further, decrying “activist” bishops on the Rwanda bill. Fellow Conservative backbencher Tom Hunt told the Daily Mail the archbishop of Canterbury “is doing great harm to the church by his repeated and clumsy political interventions.”
The bishops are hardly taking all this lying down. “We vote because we value deeply the traditions of this country and this House, and the truth we derive from the Bible and our service to Jesus Christ,” Welby himself has said, pointedly.
Richard Chapman, the Church of England’s head of parliamentary affairs, says bishops “take their role in providing scrutiny and revision really seriously.”
“If they vote on an amendment to a bill it is because they want to improve it, or because there is some wider principle at stake, not because of a party political line,” he adds.
Attacks on the Church’s role in public life have also opened on a new front, after it emerged that a refugee accused of carrying out an acid attack in London was helped to secure asylum by converting to Christianity.
Trouble in paradise
The latest souring of relations between two of the country’s oldest fixtures comes amid a shift to the right by the Conservative Party, which is facing an uphill struggle to stay in power at an election this year.
In recent years, the party has entered a more radical phase, exemplified by Brexit, which morphed from a minority Tory cause to a mainstream policy.
The row over Britain’s exit saw many Tories shift away from the Conservative Party tradition of preserving institutions and maintaining the old order, and towards a more confrontational stance with perceived blockers of their plans.
Butler-Gallie, the rural vicar, says that in more affluent, traditional Conservative seats, attacks by radical Tory MPs against parts of the establishment like the church, judiciary and army “don’t play very well — because fundamentally people still have a degree of affection for those institutions.”
Things became particularly bad between the Church and Britain’s interior ministry, the Home Office, under the leadership of right-wing darling Suella Braverman. PoliticsHome reported that Braverman even refused to meet the archbishop to discuss her immigration plans.
With Braverman replaced by the more emollient James Cleverly, some are hoping for a rapprochement.
A Church official, granted anonymity to speak about internal matters, said Welby enjoyed a good relationship with Cleverly when he was at the Foreign Office and that this “could be expected to carry over” into the Home Office.
A government official echoed this point — while stressing that the pair “fundamentally disagree” over Rwanda.
At the same time, some argue the political shift is not all one-way.
Bishops have, they say, become more politically homogeneous and now seem clustered on the liberal left.
Marcus Walker, rector of a London church, wrote during a previous flare-up between government and the clergy that the House of Lords’ “bench of bishops [has been] developing a worrying uniformity of political and theological opinion – all of a soft-left, soft-evangelical manner.”
He, along with others, points the finger at reforms under Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown shrugged off the prime minister’s long-held formal role in advising the monarch on appointing bishops, and subsequent Conservative prime ministers have followed Brown in taking a hands-off approach.
Butler-Gallie contends that there “is increasingly very, very little political diversity” within the bishops’ ranks. He says Welby “thinks of himself as running a great department of state, and he’s seeking to appoint people who are probably left-leaning on various things, and particularly around immigration.”
Others disagree with this characterization. Davies from the Church Times insists that bishops’ appointments are made by “a large and diverse” panel in a multi-stage process including Church representatives and laypeople.
The Church of England was once famously described as “the Conservative Party at prayer.” But, as the latest showdown looms Monday, it appears to be further away from its Tory brethren than ever.
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