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Church v State: how the Tories and the Bishops began to spar

9 min read

For many years the Church of England and the Tory Party have had a strong bond. But as Tali Fraser reports, recent policies have set these two grand institutions on a collision course. Can the two sides agree to disagree? Illustration by Tracy Worrall

The Church of England used to be called “The Tory Party at prayer”. But tensions between the bishops in the House of Lords and the governing party have been flaring – publicly and privately – more than usual, especially surrounding the issue of migration. 

Communication has begun to falter, with each side accusing the other of briefing the press against them, rather than discussing issues privately.  

A former senior adviser to the bishops describes their relationship with Conservative ministers in the Home Office as “really toxic” and “unfixable”, following their clash over the Illegal Migration Bill – when 25 bishops criticised the government’s flagship policy to “stop” small boats crossing the English Channel and remove those arriving in the United Kingdom illegally to Rwanda or another “safe” third country. 

“Ministers seem to prefer to conduct their dialogue through the media rather than meetings,” the former adviser added. The meetings that have taken place in the Home Office, they said, left those working for the bishops feeling like they were “lepers”. 

Despite multiple requests from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to meet with Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the pair have never sat down together. 

The feeling in the church is that this is no usual occurrence. The Archbishop recently met the Education Secretary, and previously launched initiatives alongside Conservative home secretaries, such as the government’s community sponsorship scheme for Syrian refugees, launched in 2016 at Lambeth Palace with Amber Rudd, or welcoming modern slavery initiatives with Theresa May when she was prime minister. 

“There was shock internally,” the former adviser says, “it was a big slap in the face”. 

A spokesperson for Braverman declined to comment. A spokesperson for Lambeth Palace said: “The Archbishop would be happy to meet the Home Secretary to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern. In the past the Archbishop has met other Home Secretaries. It is not unusual.” 

Conservative MP for West Dorset Chris Loder says that “friction” between the bishops and the government has not been in “such an entrenched manner as we have seen it in the last three or four years”, comparing the bishops’ behaviour to that of “a mini political party”. 

There was shock internally… it was a big slap in the face

“It increasingly feels like the bishops in the House of Lords’ priorities aren’t quite right and that they want to focus more on the platform which the House of Lords has given them to opine on political matters of the day rather than preaching the word of God,” he adds. 

Loder wrote to the Archbishop in June last year asking to meet with a number of his Conservative colleagues but says he did not receive a response (a Lambeth Palace spokesperson disputed this, saying “a response was sent to Chris Loder by a member of the Archbishop’s staff”) He accuses Lambeth Palace of being “increasingly selective based on public relations reasons” – and at a Westminster Hall debate on bishops in the House of Lords, where Loder claims “visitors, some would say spies, came from Lambeth Palace” to attend, he flagged it with them but to no avail.  

A Lambeth Palace spokesperson responded: “We don’t recognise Mr Loder’s description. The public gallery in Westminster Hall is open to everyone so they can watch debates as they happen. As it was a debate on bishops in the House of Lords, it would be only natural for Church of England staff to attend, including The Convenor of the Lords Spiritual and a member of the Church of England’s Parliamentary Team.” 

As the former senior adviser to the bishops points out, there are many constructive relationships with individual Conservative MPs and bishops, like Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk and the Bishop of Gloucester, or Robert Buckland and the Bishop of Bristol. But with other MPs, they say, relations are so bad that the bishops wouldn’t even ask for help when working in their constituencies. 

One person they named in this regard was Jonathan Gullis, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, who also accuses the bishops of “turning into faux politicians”. 

He got into a spat with the Archbishop of Canterbury last year after criticising the bishops over “using the pulpit to preach from”, following their comments on the Illegal Migration Bill. The Archbishop tweeted in response: “Always grateful for feedback – look forward to advice on what we should be doing in the pulpit. (Just to confirm: we’ll be continuing to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)” 

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in the House of Lords
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in the House of Lords (Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

What does Gullis make of their disagreement now? “I’m always up for debate and discussion but what I don’t like is cheap point scoring, which I feel has happened and I certainly felt happened when Justin Welby did that tweet rather than actually reach out and hear what I had to say.” 

Has he reached out to the Archbishop then and asked to meet? Not yet: “I’d happily sit down and fair dos, I should probably reach out myself… we will do that.” 

The Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire and Second Church Estates Commissioner Andrew Selous – who provides the link between government and the established Church of England – touches on recent tensions and emphasises the need for “grace and forgiveness more in our public life than ever”. 

“We live in a world of social media lynch mobs, where you say one word out of turn and it is, what I call, an ‘off with their heads’ mentality. Where is grace? Where is forgiveness?” 

Each week in his parliamentary office, Selous meets the on-duty Bishop of the Lords (they have a revolving rota) for tea to discuss their upcoming parliamentary business. 

What does he make of claims, like those from his Conservative colleagues, that the bishops are becoming more politicised? “I find them delightful. They have their views, which is fine,” he says. “However imperfectly, the bishops are a physically present pastoral reminder of the good that is possible.” 

Selous recognises that “there are contentious issues” that can arise from the bishops’ position in the Lords: “I’m not sure there’s always, you know, a completely biblical view on individual amendments, and you’ll find good Christians in opposing lobbies, in both Houses, across many issues ... so I think we have to be quite careful about saying, you know, the good Christian should be in the aye or the no or the content or the not content lobby.” 

Lord Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, who is the Convener of the Lords Spiritual, does the inductions for all new bishops to the House of Lords (of which there can be a few, with a mandatory retirement age of 70 years old). 

“One of the things we talk about very much [during these inductions] is that we try to avoid being inadvertently party political,” he says, “but sometimes, with the best will in the world, where you have two main political parties disagreeing, and there are amendments and votes coming up, you have to decide on which side you’re going to vote.” 

I think the bishops are quite clear on what our role is and what our role isn’t. We’re not a political party

He emphasises the importance of “disagreeing well” and navigating fundamental differences with civility. Touching on the sometimes personal attacks directed towards the bishops, he adds: “There are times when people sadly will perhaps rubbish a person rather than their argument. But that’s not in the best tradition of our democracy.” 

“Apart from a few occasions,” the Bishop of St Albans says, “I find nothing but real respect and enjoyment working with the Conservative Party”. 

How does he react to allegations coming from Tory MPs that the bishops are becoming akin to politicians?  

“I think if you look back over the last few hundred years, I don’t think we’re more politicised,” the Bishop of St Albans says. “I think the bishops are quite clear on what our role is and what our role isn’t. We’re not a political party.” 

Although he recognises one policy area has created more tension than others: “I think the immigration bill has been more controversial. It would be absolutely true that, quite unusually, the bishops have made a strong statement on it.” 

But the Bishop of St Albans finds it “interesting” which elements of what the bishops say on immigration receives attention – and that making out their position as “simple” or looking for “anybody who wants to, to come in” to the UK is incorrect. 

Gullis says there is “certainly friction” between the bishops and the Conservative party now, especially with those on the right of the party: “It is because immigration is a very important issue. It is being spoken about a lot, both in Parliament and in the public, and obviously it is one of the Prime Minister’s pledges.” 

“Traditionally, the bishops have been safe with the Conservative party,” David Burrowes, former MP and parliamentary director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, points out, as it is usually those on the left speaking of House of Lords reform or disestablishment. But he adds that there has been a slight change in that position amid recent tensions. 

“We are in a place where there is that challenging relationship,” Burrowes says. “There is undoubtedly frustration and it has been communicated quite publicly by some.” 

But the Bishop of St Albans remains positive about the working relationship between the two groups. 

He adds: “My daily experience is not particularly heated. There are always times in certain sorts of debates where one or two people may get in touch with very, you know, deep feelings and perhaps say something slightly intemperate. I find overall, that there’s an extraordinary level of civility.” 

It is clear that the bishops do not intend to hold back their views where they deem it right and proper to intervene, but the same could be said of members of the government and the Conservative party as a whole in their response.  

Perhaps it would be finally sitting down together, one on one, to disagree well – as the Bishop of St Albans puts it – that would ease tensions between the two groups, before a more drastic option is reached. As Loder raises: “A future government may inevitably look at reform that is not in the Church of England or the bishops’ favour.” 

A Church of England spokesperson said: “The bishops who serve in the House of Lords provide an independent, non-partisan voice in parliamentary debates, bringing an ethical and spiritual perspective that is also informed by their roles as key figures in local civil society … They do not sit as a party, so have no whip or party-line to follow. Alongside their roles as bishops in the dioceses they serve, they play a full and constructive role in the House of Lords in its role of scrutinising and helping to improve legislation.”

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