6 min read

The Church and the State need to disagree on asylum seekers

Politicians don’t always get how church and state relate, but both have a vital and different role to play when it comes to immigration. Graham Tomlin explores the age-old tensions between clerics and politicians

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A woman dressed in a blue suit sits at a table talking and gesticulating with her hands.
Then Home Secretary Suella Braverman, answer to a parliamentary committee, December 2022.
House of Lords, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As we all know, Suella Braverman thinks the church is aiding and abetting bogus asylum seekers. The case of the Afghan migrant Abdul Ezedi, who carried out an acid attack on a woman and her children and reports that residents of the Bibby Stockholm barge were attending churches nearby has added fuel to the former Home Secretary’s charge that churches are naively supporting the asylum claims of immigrants to the UK. Everyone on the right of British politics seems to have weighed in to the issue, from Nigel Farage to Priti Patel, Robert Jenrick to Melanie Phillips. Now, even the left has joined in. Keir Starmer has indicated he would close loopholes for those who falsely claim conversion if he becomes Prime Minister (quite how he will do that is not explained).  

I feel personally invested in this story. When I take confirmation services as a bishop, quite regularly these days, among the list of candidates, there will be Iranian or Syrian refugees who have apparently become Christians, waiting in line among the 12-year old schoolkids, the new parents who want spiritual help in bringing up their children and the elderly man approaching death who realises he needs do something he’s been putting off for years.  

I have confirmed several Iranian refugees. I can’t look into their heart, or even my own to guarantee all of them were genuine converts. Yet I have seen their desperation to escape an oppressive regime, and although some may have started out coming to church to improve their chances of asylum, in the process some of them at least, have found, to their surprise, real faith. Several that I know have gone on towards ordination in the Anglican Church. If that is a ploy to get past the immigration system, it does seem to be taking things a bit far.  

It’s hard not to think the attack on the church is some kind of retaliation for the bishops’ opposition to the government’s Rwanda scheme. But underneath this argument there are deeper issues at play. 

The wrath of God is more severe than the wrath of Suella. And the generosity of God is wider than the Home Office.

This dispute is in reality another outbreak of the age-old tension between the Church and Caesar. In the early years of the church, Roman emperors never really understood Christianity and thought they could use it for the purposes of the Roman Empire just like they were used to doing with the pagan cults.  

Yet the Christians had other ideas and higher loyalties. As Augustine put it, the loyalty of the church is ultimately to the City of God rather than the earthly city. And in time, they developed a careful understanding of the way the church related to the state.  

So when it comes to immigration, the church will always take a different approach from the state. St Paul, in the very early years of the Christian Church, wrote: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” In the very foundations of the Christian faith was this idea that even though we humans were moral and spiritual vagabonds, God has extended us a welcome into his presence. So woe betide any Christian who failed to welcome others into their fellowship if they wanted to join.  

If the Christian life was a matter of imitating and displaying God's ways in the ordinary business of life, then hospitality became one of the core Christian virtues. As one early Christian writer put it: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." To risk offending an angel - a messenger of God – was a bad idea. The wrath of God is more severe than the wrath of Suella. And the generosity of God is wider than the Home Office.

Now of course such hospitality could be abused. The New Testament also has warnings about naively welcoming scoundrels who speak falsehood and lies: "Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you... for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person." So, the early Christians were told to be on the lookout for fakes, just like clergy today. Walk down a street with a dog collar and you are a magnet for people telling you that they have lost their wallet and could you give them the train fare to visit their dying mother in Newcastle. With their doctrines of sin and the deceitfulness of the human heart, vicars should know more than most that not every claim to charity is genuine. Yet that dose of realism always took place in the context of a presumption to welcome. To think the best of people not the worst. To give people the benefit of the doubt. 

The state on the other hand has a different role. Later political theology developed more nuanced ways of putting it, but it goes back to St Paul’s claim that civil authorities are “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” It is their job to be suspicious, to investigate fully, to winkle out fake claims and to set proper limits, while  tempering justice with mercy and be willing to welcome the genuine person in need. And wisdom is found in the tension between the two. It was always a mistake for the church to act like the state, being overly suspicious and critical. It was equally a mistake for the state to act like the church, being overly optimistic about all claims to asylum or innocence.  

So, when asylum seekers turn up at church asking to be baptised, the local vicar should not act like an agent of the state, assuming they are all bogus, just wanting to fiddle the system. She must act out of loyalty to her faith which tells her to welcome the stranger. The immigration officer on the other hand, whether he happens to be Christian or not, has to play it differently. Of course, there needs to be proper scrutiny of people's application for asylum - that's why we have an immigration system and quite right too. But vicars are not immigration officers. Their job is not start out by doubting motives but to act out the welcome of God, even if it draws the ire of the Daily Telegraph. This is the way that church and state should work together, one reminding the other of the Kingdom of God - a whole different way of life where welcome and grace takes centre stage. The other, conscious of the human tendency to deceive, being rightly cautious.

Suella's problem is, at root, a theological one. She hasn't understood the way Christian faith works. She hasn't understood the relationship between the church and the state. And let's be honest, sometimes in the past, the Church has tried to play the role of the state as well, which is equally a mistake. There is an inevitable tension in this relationship, where sometimes the church will believe the state is being too harsh, or the state will believe the church is being too soft, as we have seen in recent times. But it's one of those creative tensions where each side needs the other.

Perhaps in other, wiser ages, we understood this delicate balance between church and state, and the careful work that went into defining their relationship. Maybe it's time to recognise the role that each plays, not just for the sake of a healthy social life, but for the sake of those people who come to our shores desperately seeking a new life – whether with good motives or bad. 

10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.