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The Archbishop and the Refugees

By David Waywell   Adapted from an article first published at the Spectator.

What a wonderful gesture by the UK’s Archbishop of Canterbury who is inviting ‘a family or two’ of refugees into his home. Well, not specifically into his home but a 4 bedroom cottage that sits in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. Opening up your home-which-isn’t-your-home to refugees is becoming quite popular among people who have ARCH 2more houses than hats. Bob Geldof has offered the use of his country home as well as his London flat. The Pope has instructed that Vatican lodgings should be made available to a few refugee families. This crisis is proving easier to solve that we first thought. By my quick calculation: that’s possibly up to 10 families fixed up. Just another two hundred thousand to go. If somebody could just persuade Cliff Richard to open up his various homes, we might be able to house the lot.

I don’t suppose that this is the time to talk about tenancy agreements and how long they’ll be allowed to stay. No doubt it’s until they’re ‘back on their feet’, though in a country already experiencing critical housing shortages and increasingly low wages, the Archbishop should get used to the sound of refugee children kicking footballs beneath his window for some time to come.

My advice to any refugee family soon to call the Archbishop their landlord – you can start by  picking out your own curtains. There won’t be many places available in London as comfortable, spacious, or as centrally located as a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. And who, frankly, will have the audacity to move you on? The headlines write themselves should you outstay your welcome: ‘Archbishop Chucks Out Refugees’; ‘Wellby seeing you!’; ‘Vicar evictor!’

The story exemplifies the way the problem is being variously considered. Men such as the Archbishop, the Pope, and Bob Geldof, concern themselves with the moral dimension. Moral problems tend to have simple answers such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The refugee crisis certainly has a moral component to which the answer should always be ‘yes’. However, it is largely a practical challenge meaning the answer should largely be ‘no’. The Archbishop has a finite number of cottages at his disposal in the very same way that the government has a finite amount of housing, a finite number of hospital beds. The sanitation system was built and is slowly rebuilt for estimated but finite populations. There are also a finite number of refugees but their numbers potentially far exceed the resources any country has available without impacting on the provision of services provided to the resident populations.

So the telling part of the Archbishop’s gesture isn’t that he’s allowing families into Lambeth Palace. It’s that he’s actually closing his doors to the rest. In a sense, the Archbishop of Canterbury is being far less Christian than even the supposedly villainous Hungarian border police who have admitted far more than ‘a family or two’.

If the Archbishop of Canterbury is sincerely arguing that we’re not doing enough, he would and should allow any and all refugee families into Lambeth Palace. It might get a little crowded but if he genuinely outraged by the government’s ‘very slim’ response, then the subsequent chaos would demonstrate why this is not simply a matter of saying that ‘Jesus was a refugee’.



10 Comments on "The Archbishop and the Refugees"

  1. Does the plight of the homeless in London not reach the ears and eyes of Lambath Palace? Why were they not invited to use the four bed cottage in the grounds of the palace? Perhaps the Archbishop might like to direct all Churches to unlocked their doors and house the homeless, migrants and refugees. In short, practise what they preach.

    • Absolutely right, though in the Archbishop’s defense, both refugees and homelessness are problems he can’t solve. I just wish he wouldn’t imply it’s as easy as opening a few doors. If it were that easy, surely we would be doing that.

  2. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 23rd September 2015 at 3:57 pm | Reply

    A good read David. At least the Archbishop is making a gesture.

    • Thanks Nehad, though aren’t gestures just that? A gesture and no more? As Judith rightly points out below, if he really has spare rooms, why does he suddenly feel the need to give them to refugees when there are homeless people already sleeping at his door? It is, I think, the worst kind of gesture. It’s a gesture made to assuage his guilt when I suspect he is intelligent enough to know that this problem can only be solved in Syria, possibly through violent means, and through quiet agreements reached with very bad people. Like I say: there’s a morality towards people that we all feel but there are practical considerations. I understand the situation is impossible to resolve to any person’s satisfaction but I just doubt if it’s helped by gesture politics. In fact, in a way, I think it might even make it worse because it oversimplifies something that’s hugely complex.

  3. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 23rd September 2015 at 7:24 pm | Reply

    Thanks David. Yes I agree.
    There is no easy solution. Homelessness is one of those chronic problems that need to be tackled with real concrete steps not gestures. As for the Syrian issue. I and many others have been campaigning since the summer of 2011 for a safe no fly zones in the north and the south of the country to allow people to move there safely. Lack of strategy by the Arab League, the US, EU and the UN has resulted in the disastrous situation we have now.

    • Thanks Nehad. I think, really, that is my point. The best was to beat any kind of fundamentalism is to demonstrate the virtues of being moderate. The scenes on Europe’s borders are not teaching younger generations that Europe, the West, etc. are not their enemies. Europe should have been advocating solutions that began at the source of the problem. Nobody seemed to care about the refugees as they made their journey. Being in favour of helping the refugees but against the West’s involvement in Syria seems, to me at least, totally illogical.

  4. Some commentators here have,unfairly, left out the fact that the Church of England, operates numerous night shelters, in churches and halls, for the homeless.

    • That is useful contextual info – but doesn’t alter the fact that they are not banging on the government’s door demanding they bring in thousands of refugees who will be housed in Church property. Of which there is a lot.

    • That’s a very fair point, Keith, though the real thrust of my argument was against the indulgence of spare capacity. Simply saying ‘we’ll take two families’ does not radically change the situation. It merely makes a few people feel a lot better about the situation. It would be more interesting given the moral complexity of the Syrian problem to hear the Archbishop’s views about the morality of the politics. How moral, for example, would it be for the West to support Putin in defeating Isis to maintain the lesser of twin evils?

  5. Not only does the established church own many properties in which they could house refugees, they also own vast tracts of land which could be used to build temporary homes for them and for the UK homeless. It is immoral of the Church to continue to hoard gold and silver plate, precious jewels, artwork, property and land when homeless people are dying on the streets and refugees are taking to the seas to escape murderous regimes.

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