Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer inflicts a second day of sanctimony on the House

20 Apr

If sanctimony could kill, Boris Johnson would have expired yesterday afternoon, the first time his fixed penalty notice was discussed in the Commons by Sir Keir Starmer.

But to the indignation of the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister survived that ordeal.

This left Sir Keir with a choice. Having climbed up on his high horse, should he continue in the same sanctimonious vein, or might it be better to rest the subject of the Downing Street parties, which is bound before long to return, and to ask the PM about something else?

Sir Keir opted for more sanctimony. Perhaps he thought that on Tuesday he had failed to administer a lethal dose, and that by radiating sanctimony across the Despatch Box for a second day running, he could finish Johnson off.

But sanctimony can be dangerous also to whoever radiates it. The more one claims to be holier than thou, the less attractive one may sound, and the fewer friends one may find one has.

So Sir Keir decided to make some friends. It was reported that Johnson, when addressing Tory MPs last night, had criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC for attacking the Government’s Rwanda migrants plan more vociferously than they had attacked Vladimir Putin.

Sir Keir today called on Johnson to “apologise for slandering the Archbishop”, and went on to accuse him of attacking the brave BBC journalists who have been reporting from Ukraine.

Johnson bridled: “I said nothing of the kind.” Yesterday he made a great show of contrition. Today it was equally important that he demonstrate fighting spirit. Otherwise people would think his spirit had been broken.

This accusation that he had been “traducing journalists” showed, the Prime Minister declared, that Sir Keir “must be out of his tiny mind”.

Johnson also found occasion to call Sir Keir “a Corbynista in a smart Islington suit”. After all, had not Sir Keir campaigned at the last general election to have Jeremy Corbyn made Prime Minister?

Politics is often a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils: a point which sanctimonious politicians refuse to admit.

Welby, small boats and asylum. What’s his alternative?

18 Apr

Let’s start by agreeing that both the gangmaster trade in people trafficking – which makes a mockery of those refugees seeking legal asylum routes – and the deportation of trafficked people to Rwanda are undesirable.

The question that follows is whether the first can be stopped without resort to the second (or a policy very like it).  So move on to mull the only alternative for control on offer that I know of.

Which would be to allow asylum applications from abroad: this is the “safe and legal” route of which we have all read during recent days.

It could be that instead of taking small boats to Britain, asylum seekers would queue up patiently in Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles to apply for entry.

Which would mean presenting their papers to the authorities abroad rather than tearing them up before arrival here, as is often the case, in order to further their claims.

Some might do so but others wouldn’t: there is really no way of estimating the proportions.  But even were the majority to do so, the number of people seeking asylum in Britain and elsewhere isn’t a fixed number.

And there is no limit on the number of refugees that we and other countries are obliged to take, due to international agreements on refugees drawn up three quarters of a century ago.

In other words, the most likely consequence of such a policy would be higher refugee and migration numbers, as more people entered by both legal and illegal routes.

For once a new means of travel has been hit upon, people are willing to pay to use it, and their number is large, the only direction numbers are likely to go in is up.

So it is with the discovery that a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, dinghy or kayak can profitably be packed with people and sailed from the beaches of Normandy to the coastline of Kent.

A French government better disposed to ours than Emmanuel Macron’s could help reduce the numbers, but by how much, given the length of the coastline, is debatable

And remember: there is no good reason, were the Government to open up “safe and legal” routes from France, for it not to do so automatically for those applying from other countries.

Which suggests taking a much larger number of refugees than the combined total of up to three million Hong Kongers, 20,000 Syrians, and 20,000 or so Afghans that this pro-migration Government has committed to taking.

Plus, of course, Ukrainians.  There were 84 million refugees worldwide in 2020.  Obviously, that total, a larger one than the population of the UK, wouldn’t all want to come here were the prospect on offer.

But it is only a fraction of the total eligible to apply.  How many are the supporters of “safe and legal routes” willing to take, since given our international commitments there is no cap on numbers?

If it is now the teaching of the Church of England that Britain is morally obliged to take as many asylum seekers as wish to come here, Justin Welby should say so.

It just could be that the only alternative on offer is the Government’s Rwandan scheme, which itself is not unprecedented: consider the EU’s deal with Turkey over migration in 2016.

Unless, that is, the Archbishop would prefer Ministers collectively to shrug their shoulders and let the small boats cross – endangering their passengers, enriching criminals and making a mockery of law-abiding asylum seekers.

If so, the view of the Church would presumably be not only that we should take an unlimited number of asylum seekers, but that we should abandon all control of our borders while we’re at it.

A conventional take on the Rwanda policy is that Boris Johnson, down on his luck at the polls, has hit on the cynical wheeze of waging a culture war against migrants.

If so, dropping the annual limit on semi-skilled work permits; easing the salary threshold and allowing an unlimited number of foreign students can stay on for up to two years – all of which he has done – is an odd way of showing it.

As it happens, closing down openings for a British Marine Le Pen would strike me and perhaps others as no bad thing in itself.

For when mainstream parties don’t control migration, opportunities open up for extremist ones.  First past the post and the good sense of voters have kept them at bay.  The cost of living crisis presents them with new opportunities.

At any rate, the events of the last year suggest that the Prime Minister is a wobbly trolley rather than a focused strategist, at least as far as small boats are concerned.

I’ve watched the argument sway back and forth among Ministers, civil servants and SpAds as the small boat numbers climbed from 2,012 in 2020 to 23,000 by November last year.

Some have been unwilling to countenance the Rwanda policy because they don’t like it. And because they fear what must follow if the Government first talks big and then climbs down.

Namely, the mother of all ding-dongs with the courts, and perhaps with parts of the civil service too, followed by the revisiting of obligations from another age that leave us with no limit on numbers and which are decades out of date.

At any rate, the Government now seems to have made up its mind – due perhaps to the arrival of Steve Barclay et al – and now that it has made a decision it must see it through.

In the meantime, the opponents of the policy will warn of the coming of an anti-Christ: Johnson and all his works.  Some are bad faith actors, willing to abandon all control of our borders, but unwilling to say so.

More are good faith ones: believers in a policy of “safe and legal” routes which implies a larger number of asylum seekers than I believe most voters would be willing to take.

Even so, I would sympathise with Welby’s point of view were the small boats making the long journey to Britain from Gwadar in Pakistan or Bushehr in the Persian Gulf or Tartus on the Syrian coast.

But they are coming from France.  From France, for goodness sake – a neighbour that sees itself, not without reason, as the country that gifted civilisation to the world.

Does the Archbishop really think that France is a country from which asylum seekers are compelled to flee to these shores? If so, his sense of Christianity may trump that of his critics, but not his sense of proportion.

How do you persuade the unvaccinated to get jabbed? Gently does it.

8 Jan

“There are still almost nine million people eligible who haven’t had their booster”, were the words of Boris Johnson at Tuesday’s press conference. Although the UK has had a tremendous vaccination programme, with 90 per cent of people over the age of 12 having had a single jab, and 80 per cent their second, the Government still wants to drive home, as much as possible, the need for boosters.

It is no wonder the Government is being pushy. The unvaccinated, and those whose with waning immunity from previous doses of the vaccine, particularly older age groups, are at risk of hospitalisation and death from the virus – at a time when Coronavirus has become more transmissible, due to the Omicron variant. They also put a strain on the NHS – with one London doctor recently warning that 80 to 90 per cent of the patients in intensive care were unvaccinated – making it more likely that the Government would have to consider lockdown(s) again.

Analyses show who the Government has in its sights, as it tries to Get Boosters Done. There are, for starters, regional disparities. London is a big “problem area” as far jabs are concerned, where only 39 per cent had had their booster and 69 per cent have had their first dose of the vaccine. This is in stark contrast to the South West of the UK, where the statistics stand at 62 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively.

Then there’s more specific demographic data. An analysis of 20 million NHS records by OpenSAFELY group, run by Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shows that take up is lower among ethnic minorities.

Polls have also shown previously that young people, and women, were more likely to be hesitant about getting the jab. According to the Office of National Statistics, the most common reasons people are avoiding their booster are: thinking it will not offer extra protection (45 per cent of respondents); “thinking the first and second vaccine will be enough to keep safe” (33 per cent); “being worried about having a bad reaction to the booster vaccine” (29 per cent) and “being worried about long-term effects on health” (17 per cent).

With that in mind, is the Government’s approach to the unjabbed the correct one? While it is not as extreme as France, where Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to ““p*ss off” the unvaccinated, or Austria, which is to have a lockdown for the same group, its strategy is still fairly hardline.

Its most stringent measure is vaccine passports, meaning that people will be prohibited for spaces, such as large events and nightclubs, should they be unable to provide a negative Covid result and not have had two jabs. Already there are signs that these measures will escalate, with boosters becoming a requirement for vaccine passports and travel. Johnson even warned that there could even be a “national debate” on mandatory jabs, in perhaps his least libertarian move ever.

Listening to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, it struck me that the current tactics will not persuade those most reluctant. The fact is that passports appeal to those who are content with a strong state. But one reason others aren’t getting a jab is precisely because they are wary of it, and thus will not respond well to threats to their freedoms.

In general, there have been some very counterproductive efforts to Get Britain Jabbed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, recently declared that Jesus would have got a jab and, around the same time, Tony Blair said that anyone who is eligible and refused the vaccine is an “idiot”. Rather like how militant Remainers shouted insults at Brexiteers, the result is to alienate those whom one wants to persuade.

It’s worth saying that behind the scenes the Government has taken more of a “soft” approach to encouraging jab uptake. Last year it hired MMC, a specialist agency for diverse communities, to boost take up among minority groups. There have also been gentle campaigns, one involving TV adverts with the message “every vaccination gives us hope”, targeted at over-50s who are hesitant.

But perhaps the Government can go further with these methods. Professor Andrew Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, and whom I wrote about yesterday, said that the solution to the unvaccinated lies in “a conversation with community leaders, or trusted person, such as a GP.” Surely the Government’s success in cutting that nine million figure relies on building trust, alleviating fears and connecting with communities.

The Government also needs to make more of a case to young people as to why they should keep getting jabbed when they are low risk on aggregate. If the answer is “civil duty” – so as to cut transmission in the population – maybe it is better to spell this out, as many will think they don’t personally need it. The default at the moment is to treat youngsters as if they have done great wrong if they haven’t had a booster, despite the enormous sacrifices they made at other points in the pandemic. All in all, “gently does it”, might be the best advice to persuading all the unjabbed.

Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.