Asylum tribunals: for whom will we stand?

Today I am heading to Bradford for a court appearance. Not mine, of course. I am appearing on behalf of one of our members. No, I know Oldham’s rough, but he’s not done anything either. He is an asylum seeker and the Home Office, ever helpful as they are, have decided to hold his hearing in Bradford rather than the much nearer and more accessible tribunal court in Manchester.

We have, quite recently, adjusted our policy on asylum seekers. I say adjusted, we didn’t really have a policy before; we just offered letters and support on an ad hoc basis as it seemed right to us. More recently, this has felt altogether inadequate as a position. I have written here about some of the issues associated with welcoming asylum seekers into our churches and the inevitable requests to attend court on their behalf.

Given some of these problems, and our previous inadequate ad hoc setup, we have determined to hold two basic positions: (1) any requests for support letters will be discussed by the elders; (2) we will only attend court for church members.

It bears saying that not everybody for whom we provide a letter wants or needs us to attend court. For many, they simply want a proof that they have continued to seek fellowship somewhere new since they have moved. They are not asking us for any substantive evidence, just a simple statement of fact that they have, indeed, appeared at our church. Usually, in such situations, there is another church with a much stronger history with the applicant offering the substance of any proof of faith.

The reason that we have determined to agree for whom we will write letters together as an eldership is that we want to avoid a) an ad hoc approach to whom we support in writing and b) often find that people will request a letter from one of us knowing that other of us have either refused or know certain pertinent facts that would give us pause for thought. We have found some coming to church for a week or two and asking us to support them. Naturally, we are in no position to say anything of any value and generally say no to both letters and appearances for such people.

What letters we do write tend to take one of three lines. Either, 1) we acknowledge an individual has come on a Sunday but we cannot say anything about the veracity of their claim to faith on this ground; 2) we acknowledge an individual has come on Sunday and to any other meetings but we, again, cannot say much about their faith; or, 3) we acknowledge everything in #2 but add that we may have had a discussion about their testimony and verify that it is credible. These things we consider to be basic statements of fact regarding what we do, or do not, know about the individual.

Nonetheless, the major change in our position is that we now will not attend court for anybody who is not in membership of the church. The reason for this is simple. At every court appearance we are asked a direct question by the Home Office representative: can you affirm – as far as you can know – that the applicant is a genuine Christian? We have a very simple means of affirming this in the church; namely, baptism and membership. Those we believe to be genuine Christians with a credible testimony we baptise, welcome into membership and permit to join with us in the Lord’s Supper. The process of getting somebody to this point contains a series of checks and balances that must be ratified by the church membership. When we welcome somebody into membership it is not merely the pastor or the elders alone affirming genuine belief in Christ; the whole church affirms that here is a true believer.

It did not seem appropriate for us to attend court for those we have not welcomed into membership. If we cannot affirm an individual as a real Christian through the normal processes of the church, it seems incongruous to state as much in a court of law. This is compounded by the fact that there really is no limitation on bringing people into membership. The process does not take long from hearing an individual’s testimony through to undertaking baptismal and membership classes. We are able to call special members meetings to ratify a candidates application for baptsm and membership and, having our own baptistry in the church, we can conduct as many as we please with whatever regularity we deem appropriate.

What this means is that our testimony on behalf of those we do support is credible. We only stand for those who have been through the processes of the church for baptism and membership. We can offer evidence of a testimony that has been scrutinised and a track record of faith worked out in practice before the entire church membership. Further, we can attest that we have refused to attend court for those we cannot affirm as genuine believers and have a clear line in the sand as to when and why we will do this. This allows us to affirm, with real intergrity, that the person before the court – so far as we can ever know these things – is a genuine believer.