Boris Johnson has compared his Christian faith to trying to get Virgin Radio while driving through the Chilterns. “It sort of comes and goes,” he said.
It was a joke borrowed from one of his predecessors, David Cameron, and as such it never quite seemed to ring true. But there’s no challenging the genuine strength of feeling in the government about the archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention over immigration.
An unholy row has erupted after Justin Welby’s Easter Day sermon in which he raised “serious ethical questions” about the home secretary’s plan to dispatch unauthorized asylum seekers to Rwanda, describing the policy as “the opposite of the nature of God”.
Reports emanating from a subsequent meeting of Conservative MPs suggested Boris Johnson accused Justin Welby of being “less vociferous” in his condemnation of Vladimir Putin than of the British government.
There hasn’t been much Christian charity between No 10 and Lambeth Palace since, with the Church accusing Downing Street of a “disgraceful slur”. A Lambeth Palace spokesperson pointed out that Welby had described Russian atrocities as the “obscene killing of God’s precious children”.
Aside from the sound and fury, though, is there any justification for the government’s anger? To hear ministers talk, you’d think Welby was a closet Corbynista. And we’ve been here before. Before the 2015 general election, all 42 of England’s diocesan bishops jointly penned a letter bemoaning the effects of austerity on the poorest people in Britain. Although they emphasized they didn’t favor one political party or another, their opposition to Trident renewal and backing for remaining in the EU had Tory MPs choking over the chalice.
But previous archbishops have fallen foul of Conservative governments, too. Robert Runcie’s famous Faith in the City report on urban deprivation was described by one unnamed Tory cabinet minister as “pure Marxist theology.”
It’s lazy, though, to put Welby or his predecessors in a political party pigeon hole. Rowan Williams expressed “grave reservations” about the decision by Tony Blair’s Labor government to go to war in Iraq, highlighting the “moral and the practical flaws” and the “deeply disturbing” consequences of military action.
In truth, it’s no surprise that the established Church clashes with the government of the day, whatever its political hue. Church and state are so intertwined that religious leaders would be neglecting their duties if they failed to speak truth to power. The bishops sit in the House of Lords, they speak in debates, and they vote on legislation (though not very often).
There have been various attempts to analyze their political biases, but despite the current suspicion in government that Welby is a card-carrying leftie; if anything, Church of England bigwigs have always been conservative with a small cat at the very least. Just look at their traditional opposition to same-sex marriage, for starters.
Some more progressive members of the Church have even argued that it should sever its ties with the state to stop clerics being obliged to take on the role of establishment flunkies.
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Welby himself has said disestablishment wouldn’t be a disaster, but he’s always been clear that’s a decision for parliament and the people.
There’s no sign of a referendum on stripping the Anglican Church of its official national status any time soon. In the meantime, it is struggling to carve out a role in an increasingly secular 21st century Britain.
Philip Larkin once described religion as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die.” As congregations prepared to buy into the fantasy dwindle, the Church risks expiring too unless it remains relevant. Speaking out on behalf of the vulnerable or voiceless is a decent place to start.
So while the Church of England’s supreme governor, the Queen, has to stay out of politics; the man she appointed to the top Anglican job is entitled to join the debate.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays at 7