Unlike France, the United States or India, Britain is not a secular state. The Church of England has been the established church since the Reformation instigated by Henry VIII, who rejected Roman Catholicism and the authority of the Vatican. The established church is expected to bless and work alongside the elected government and hereditary monarchy. Twenty-six bishops, known as the Lords Spiritual, sit in the House of Lords. It is all very British, all very cosy – resistance from this branch of the old Establishment is rare. When God’s highly privileged reps do pluck up courage and query or censure policies, the dissent comes as a seismic shock to the ruling elite. In the 1980s, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie – who opposed Margaret Thatcher’s divisive economic strategies – was denounced as a “Marxist” by the Iron Lady’s acolyte Norman Tebbit, and torched by the right-wing press. In the past year, top bishops have similarly spoken up against planned poverty and inequality.
Now churchgoing Tories are once again mightily displeased with the bothersome priests. This weekend, 84 bishops rebuked David Cameron and Co for their “increasingly inadequate” response to the refugee crisis. In an unprecedented move, Church leaders published a private letter they wrote to the PM asking him to take in more refugees. The letter also suggested the Government help provide housing, foster care and other necessities for the children, women and men who are stateless, hopeless, hungry and anguished – tossed around the seas and treated in many parts of Europe like flotsam and jetsam.
What an example these bishops set. How they fill Christian belief with true meaning and purpose. It will make Cameron, Theresa May, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith livid to be called out in this way. But they will find it hard to spin this pure call for compassion, this affirmation of humane values.
I have met so many decent Christians who help asylum-seekers – who offer them accommodation, clothes, solace and friendship. When you lose your homeland, family members and community, friendship offered by strangers helps to heal the hurt and restore optimism. I will forever be grateful to the Britons who befriended me when, in 1972, Idi Amin exiled us Ugandan Asians from our homeland.
Now a number of British Jews vote Tory, yet a huge number of them have also rallied to the plight of the newly dispossessed. They keep and honour their long memories of persecution and dislocation through the centuries. The Jewish Council for Racial Equality (Jcore) – a tiny set-up– tirelessly campaigns for refugee rights and a fair society. I quote from one of its online communiqués: “Images of officials throwing bread to desperate people in Hungary as if it were feeding time at the zoo and people inhumanly crammed on to overcrowded trains [are] eerily reminiscent of scenes from our own tragic past – they will continue to haunt us and will, for now, galvanise us into action. Our community has responded in a number of ways, with letters to the Prime Minister about the Government’s failure to deal humanely with the situation of the people in Calais, and one signed by more than 100 rabbis. A number of synagogues have also put up banners proclaiming: ‘Refugees Are Welcome Here’… Add to this the words of Hillel from Ethics of the Fathers, ‘If not now, when?’ and the direction of travel we must all take becomes clear.”
This is all the more impressive when you think about who the victims are – Arabs, mostly, and Africans. There will be some Christians, but most will be Muslim, pro-Palestinian, and some will be anti-Semitic. But these British Jews have put that aside to focus simply on helping the victims of war and persecution. A Syrian student I met recently said to me: “I am very surprised Jewish people want to help my people. I did not expect that. Maybe we Arabs judge too much.”
Sikh and Muslim charities are also reaching out to Syrians living abjectly in camps in Lebanon and elsewhere. But, unlike the bishops and rabbis, they are not challenging the Tory party line or being conspicuously oppositional. I think some of this is residual – rooted fear felt by settled migrants, their children and grandchildren. These people feel they must keep their heads down, accept decisions passed by parliamentarians, and not kick up too much of a fuss and thereby provoke local retribution. This I understand.
What I do not understand is the aggressive hostility some migrants now express towards those who are fleeing terror, destitution, torture and annihilation.
You see them on Question Time, brown and black-skinned Britons in the audience, whose views would make Nigel Farage blush. I met xenophobes of colour at the party conferences. Some praised Theresa May’s Enoch Powellite rhetoric, while others thought she was still not hard enough. A black Caribbean woman was paranoid about “the Muslim refugee invasion”. The worst statement I heard was this: “That dead child [Aylan Kurdi] was killed by the parents. Who asked them to do this? More of them means less for us. Shoot a few and the boats will stop.” This came from a Ugandan Asian businessman with a big house in Pinner: a Tory party supporter who is a child of Ugandan Asians, proud of Priti Patel, and a hardliner on asylum and migration issues.
We came, we saw, we faced discrimination and humiliation. We survived, we fell in love, had children, and joined this ever-changing rainbow nation. We of migrant stock should never forget this history and turn away from those seeking sanctuary. But many do. The Bishops’ letter should shame them as much as it does our Government.
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