Justin Welby’s intervention on immigration only highlights the church’s unwillingness to practise what it preaches - David Behrens

Liz Truss and Justin Welby have been competing on two fronts lately. Quite apart from trying to out-do each other in the silliest hat competition at the Coronation, there is the rather more serious matter of insisting on being heard when no one is listening.

The delusional Ms Truss was at it again on Wednesday, urging her successor at Number 10 to treat China as a threat to the UK’s security. China might well say the same about her.

But she is an easy figure to dismiss. No-one even bothered to call her out as a hypocrite for turning up at the Abbey despite having campaigned for the monarchy’s abolition when she was Lib Dem president at Oxford. “We do not believe people are born to rule,” she moralised before turning Tory.

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Welby’s hypocrisy, on the other hand, is more deeply rooted. The Archbishop of Canterbury used his pulpit in the House of Lords last week to condemn as “morally unacceptable” the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which seeks to send asylum seekers back home or to Rwanda to reduce the £5.5m-a-day bill for housing them in the UK.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivering his Easter Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral in 2022. PIC: Hollie Adams/Getty ImagesJustin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivering his Easter Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral in 2022. PIC: Hollie Adams/Getty Images
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivering his Easter Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral in 2022. PIC: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

You may agree with Welby’s narrative or not; that isn’t the point. What is at issue, and not for the first time, is the unwillingness of the church to put into practice what it preaches. There has been no counter proposal, no offer of practical help to the nation or the poor souls who are drawn to it; only condemnation. Is that charitable? Is it even Christian?

Welby is a figure demonstrably out of touch with the public. His tone deaf plan to ask us all to swear allegiance to the new King was a step too far even for Charles, who apparently found the idea abhorrent.

And in 2020, while the rest of us were struggling to hold our lives together during the pandemic, he announced he would be taking a three-month sabbatical for “reflection, prayer, and spiritual renewal”. Nice work if you can get it.

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It wasn’t the first time he had faced down accusations of hypocrisy. In 2018 it emerged the Church of England was using zero-hours employment contracts and investing in Amazon while its leader was publicly condemning both.

The Church attempted to defend itself at the time by saying its employment policy was drafted five years earlier and “did not reflect current thinking”. That much was true – almost nothing about the institution reflects current thinking; least of all its vacillation on same-sex marriage.

But Welby’s intervention in the illegal migrants crisis raises more fundamental questions about his judgement and about the role of the church. Should its mission to dispense spiritual comfort be functional rather than just theoretical?

As several correspondents to the letters pages of this newspaper have pointed out, the Church of England is one of the wealthiest institutions in the country. That investment in Amazon is just the tip of the iceberg; it has put money into the profiteering oil giants Shell and BP and is one of the biggest landowners in the country with a portfolio that includes London’s Hyde Park Estate. Its investments are worth somewhere in the region of £10bn.

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Yet it has made no constructive proposal on how it might redistribute some of this wealth to support the destitute people Welby seeks to protect, or those already here who are struggling to feed their families. There has been no offer to turn over land to new houses for immigrants or anyone else; there has been only denunciation.

Nor have we seen any serious attempt to turn places of worship into temporary shelters – though, God knows, there’s plenty of room inside.

The negative rhetoric rings particularly hollow against the revelation that the Church of England supports barely two dozen refugees through its community sponsorship scheme. And while there are a few other initiatives, the organisation’s claim to be “a front-line provider of welcome and services” to refugees does not stand serious scrutiny.

Mr Welby has been challenged before on his failure to turn ambition into action and his response has been typically ambiguous. Earlier this year he expressed disappointment at politicians for not resolving the crisis in the social care sector but failed to suggest what they might have done differently.

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He might argue that it wasn’t his job to do so but that would be conveniently selective of him. Neither was it his place to ask us to pledge our loyalty to the King – his one original contribution to the national debate and a mediaeval one at that.

No-one would deny the Church of England its function as the nation’s moral compass but if the needle is permanently stuck on S for sanctimonious, Welby and his bishops may as well shout into the wind. Or at Liz Truss.