The conversion of St Lee

Never mind migrants converting, what about the MPs?


Verily, it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to get a government minister to explain why the Conservatives aren’t returning the rich man’s donations over his remarks about Diane Abbott. 

But is it harder to enter the Kingdom of Heaven or the United Kingdom? And might entry to the former help you get a passport from the latter? These were the tricky questions that Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee attempted to answer on Tuesday morning. The revelation that the Clapham attacker Abdul Shokoor Ezedi gained asylum on the grounds that he’d converted to Christianity has sparked a panic, and the MPs were ready to throw heat, and perhaps even a little light, onto the situation.

The session began, like the New Testament, with a lesson from Matthew. Specifically Matthew Firth, formerly priest at a Darlington church, who explained that he’d found himself presented with groups of asylum seekers wanting baptisms. He described how lawyers working for asylum-seekers would ask him to exaggerate the church involvement of their clients.

To the Conservatives in the room, he was a star witness. Marco Longhi called him a “hero”. Tim Loughton described him as a “whistleblower”. The question was whether his experience was typical or unusual, and whether his fellow clergymen had, like him, resisted this pressure. 

Not unlike, say, a politician who feels the appeal of a new party in the days after he’s been suspended from his existing one

We came to an expert in conversion, a man who had, not 24 hours earlier, revealed that for the second time in his life he’d seen the light and decided to switch parties. Lee Anderson — for it was he — elicited from Firth that the baptismal candidates he’d encountered had all arrived after their asylum claims had been rejected. Not unlike, say, a politician who feels the appeal of a new party in the days after he’s been suspended from his existing one.

“Why do you think that they had this ‘Road to Damascus’ moment at this stage and not before?” Anderson asked, utterly straight-faced. Having written on Monday that he was thin-skinned and humourless, I was suddenly forced to consider the possibility that Anderson is in fact our nation’s greatest comic actor. Even Sacha Baron-Cohen would have cracked a smile delivering that line, but not Anderson.

Anderson began listing all the people who were benefitting from the current asylum chaos, a list that included criminal gangs, lawyers and obscurely, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but not his new colleagues at Reform. “What’s in it for the church?” he demanded. It was a fair point: the Good Samaritan never did get his money back.

The committee wheeled in more senior churchpeople, representing the Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, and the Baptists. First, they were taken through the basics. How did one get baptised into the Catholic church? “We have a very defined process,” Christopher Thomas, the church’s representative, explained. “Quite a lengthy process.” The Gospel of Luke tells of the thief crucified alongside Christ, who asked him: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied: “Truly I say to you, there is quite a lengthy process.” 

The Baptists, on the other hand will, if persuaded you’re genuine, shove your head under water after about six weeks. Not that they don’t take baptism seriously. Quite the opposite, explained their man, Steve Tinning. “The clue is in the name,” he said cheerfully. “This is what we’re about, being Baptists.”

He was asked about the Bibby Stockholm barge, where there have been stories of people turning to Jesus in numbers that are, depending on your perspective, miraculous or suspicious. Tinning was happy to explain: around 40 asylum seekers on the barge were attending churches, most of them local Baptist churches, and seven had already been baptised.

“They came out of the blue one Sunday morning,” he smiled. “Just attended. Then a number more came and a number more came, and now they’re vibrant members of that community.” There was joy in Tinning’s voice as he described this, the delight at lost sheep found, the blind who could now see. 

You would have thought, hearing this, that the Baptists would be the focus of the questioning. But it turned out the committee’s Tory MPs were much more focused on the appalling Archbishop of Canterbury, who keeps saying such horrible things about their Rwanda plan. 

Many of their questions were delivered in tones of astonished outrage. Why didn’t the Church of England have a database of the asylum status of baptismal candidates? Why weren’t there specific criteria for deciding if someone was a genuine convert? Loughton quoted, in a baffled voice, guidance to vicars that they should be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves”. We can only wish that Jesus had been a bit more specific in his language. 

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani, sighed. The church had a great deal of canon law about baptism. It had been doing this for hundreds of years. Contrary to what her interrogators clearly believed, “the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t act like a CEO”. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t tell vicars to start or stop baptising people. The MPs looked cynical. For people all too aware that the leader of the Conservative Party can’t get 350 MPs to do what he wants, they were struggling a lot with the idea that an institution of 16,000 churches might not have total top-down control.

It was Tinning who most clearly explained why churches aren’t going to stop what they’re doing: “There is no more explicit teaching in Scripture, from beginning to end, than welcoming the stranger.”  

Finally we heard from Home Office minister Tom Pursglove, who explained that there wasn’t actually anything to suggest bogus conversions were affecting asylum applications. Alison Thewliss of the SNP asked him about the claim from Suella Braverman that she’d been warned, as Home Secretary, about churches “facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims”. What had she been talking about?

“It’s a matter for the former Home Secretary to explain the comments she made,” Pursglove replied. “They are not my comments.”

Again Thewliss asked the minister, saying unto him that if Braverman had seen evidence, it must have been in her ministerial capacity. Again he replied: “I can’t give a definitive answer as to what it is Mrs Braverman had in mind.”

And a third time, Thewliss said unto him: “The evidence that she’s referring to doesn’t exist?” And Pursglove replied: “You would need to ask her.”

And at that moment, as Pursglove denied Braverman a third time, the division bell rang. But it was probably just coincidence.

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