Good and bad Church action to help Migrants
In the last 24hours a news story has broken concerning a vicar in East Sussex alleged to have carried out “sham marriages” to save asylum seekers from being returned. Last week I was in Copenhagen, where a church is giving sanctuary to about 80 asylum seekers. The two actions might have similar intentions, but I can’t help thinking the former is more damaging than anything else.
Lets start with the marriages thing. I don’t think this is a good use of the institution of marriage, least of all the Christian institution of marriage. I’m also just a little suspicious that money might have been involved, and we shouldn’t rule this out until facts become clearer. All round, this has probably been pretty damaging.
It will send exactly the message the government wants: Priests in any religious tradition who have legal license to carry out state-sanctioned marriages must refuse to marry anyone foreign to anyone national, because Britain is already full and the British should marry those who are already here. The BNP message that marrying someone from a different culture is perverted is also being carried.
But it must be said, and iterated and underlined, that the cause was one that churches must get behind. Any attempts by the government to criminalise church intervention on asylum must be rejected; it is simply unbiblical to disengage from helping the most vulnerable people in our community, and right now asylum seekers are a large proportion of this category.
The Church of England even acknowledges this, if in a very calm and measured tone in GS Misc 762, better known as “A Place of Refuge: a positive approach to asylum seekers and refugees in the Church of England”, a thoroughly researched and readable report which now forms the basis of the church’s position on the issue.
But simply having a nice position won’t do anything, and too few frontline churches are actually getting involved in the asylum issue. With the BNP trying to present the gospel as anti-immigrant, and the government trying to clamp down to such extremes that not one person has made it through the tunnel to not-safety in the last few weeks, its time for the church actually nail its colours to the mast and get its hands dirty.
And a very good way to do that is to house the destitute in our buildings. Its a long time since I’ve seen an actual church take an initiative that turned so many heads for all the right reasons. Sadly the Danish police are now beginning to ratchet up the confrontation, but its hardly like they’ll throw the minister to the lions like the Romans might have done. This is the church right at the heart of the struggle for justice, taking heat for doing what’s right. This is comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable (including the Danish Prime Minister) in its most raw and powerful way.
I do worry sometimes that the church in Britain is quite happy to notionally support the church in China, but not really interested in transcending national boundaries. They’re over there, and we should encourage them to stick at it and stay over there. When, for instance, an Iraqi Christian washes up on the church doorstep, we get quite tetchy about the idea of opening our homes. After all, we’re Christian British people, we’re not British Christians for whom our Britishness is entirely subservient to our Christian beliefs. We’ll pray for the persecuted church, but we won’t confront the idea that its only a few thousand miles away, and possibly not even that.
To any member of clergy wondering about helping an asylum seeker who is threatened with imminent deportation, I would send encouragement and a word of caution not to confuse the issue as this vicar has done. When statements like ones issued by both the Danish PM and Copenhagen Deputy Police Chief are sent, stand tall. In the face of rising xenophobia If we want to be Christ’s hands and feet, its the only thing the church can do.