Are churches really that gullible when it comes to assessing belief in asylum seekers?

It seems The Times have been going hard after the Church of England over the weekend. There was first this piece from Matthew Parris, insisting Anglicanism was never really about God. Then, yesterday, there was this one from Dominic Lawson. In the gift that keeps on giving for those who want to simultaneously have a go at Christian idiots (which Lawson derides as ‘holy fools’) and make a point about ‘gaming the asylum system’ (for which Lawson insists that Church of England, in particular, are involved in ‘a scam), he continues to give air time to the church-people-helped-a-bomber nonsense we have been treated to of late. And it is Lawson’s article I particularly wanted to tackle here.

I have no desire to sit here defending the Church of England and its practices so far as asylum seekers go. Not because I am happy to leave them to writhe, but because I am not well placed to comment on them specifically. But the moment Lawson decided to turn his guns on Evangelicals, he was training his sights on those like me and my church. And his understanding of what we do and how we do it bore little to no relation to anything he said in his article.

For instance, he said the following:

Last week The Times revealed an ad placed on Instagram by a people-smuggling network, claiming that conversion to Christianity was a way of winning an asylum claim “in the shortest possible time with the lowest cost”. In 2016 the Dean of Liverpool admitted there had been no similar rush to convert to Christianity among Muslims who already had British citizenship: “I can’t think of a single example.”

It is unfortunate that the Dean of Liverpool can find no such examples – and it perhaps does speak to their particular process (though, it is worth noting what I said here about that) – I can think of lots of such examples. Indeed, we are just going through the process at the moment of aiming to baptise and bring into membership an Iranian refugee whose right to remain has been granted. He has no reason to seek baptism to bolster a claim that has already been granted. I can produce dozens of such examples from our church.

The context of Lawson’s comment above was this:

Swealmeen had been confirmed as a Christian by Cyril Ashton, one of Liverpool’s assistant bishops, in 2017. Last week Ashton told the BBC: “I have no specific recollection of the individual [but] I know that he would have been thoroughly prepared with an understanding of the Christian faith. It seems that, sadly, despite this grounding, the bomber chose a different path for his life.” That’s one way of putting it.

It is not surprising the bishop couldn’t recall Swealmeen: the Anglican cathedral had confirmed hundreds of asylum seekers from Muslim countries in recent years. The Home Office regards this as something of a scam: if the conversion to Christianity is accepted as genuine by a tribunal, asylum will be granted because such apostates are at risk if returned to their country of origin.

It is certainly true that if a legitimate claim to Christianity can be established by someone coming from a country where being a practising Christian carries real risk that asylum is likely to be granted. That is why, as I argued here, both the Home Office and the courts look for credible processes from churches to determine such things. If the processes of a church do not stand up to scrutiny, then it is likely that the application will be rejected. The Home Office and the courts have a natural bias against churches – taking a similar view of them to Lawson – and so proper processes for determining genuine belief are necessary. This is why, whenever we go to court for an asylum seeker, our accompanying letter spells out in detail exactly what our process for determining credible profession of faith is. We spell out exactly what it is we look for from anybody claiming to be a genuine believer. We are clear that we have a robust process for assessing credible belief.

Lawson goes on:

Swealmeen’s confirmation as a Christian had not succeeded in getting the tribunal to reconsider its rejection of his asylum claim in 2014 — although that, evidently, had not caused him to be returned to Jordan, where his family was from (he had falsely claimed to be from civil war-torn Syria). We now learn that he was attending a mosque “every day” in the period when he was buying materials for his bomb.

It is admittedly possible he had been sincere in his conversion to Christianity, and changed his mind. Malcolm Hitchcott, half of an evangelical couple who housed Swealmeen for eight months, said last week: “We saw him really blossoming in regards to his Christian faith. He really had a passion about Jesus that I wish many Christians had.” There is no doubting Mr Hitchcott’s sincerity. But this is part of the problem. If you are an evangelical Christian, your life is devoted to converting as many as you can. It is your mission. The last thing you will be, when someone “finds Jesus” under your guidance, is sceptical.

Whilst there is a certain brand of ‘get them over the line’ Christian, Evangelicals are only too aware of the problem of false comfort. Lawson would do well to read this post concerning some pressure put on me and my fellow elders to affirm somebody as a believer whom we did not think understood the gospel. Far from simply waving people in the moment they claim to be a believer, we are all too aware that many have ulterior motives. We are also aware that others, though deeply sincere in their belief, simply have not grasped or understood the Christian gospel. Whilst churches might have a desire to see their membership figures upped, Evangelicals of all Christians – often the most derided for believing so – recognise a real place called Hell exists and do not want people to go there. To comfort people, even credulously, in false professions of faith is incredibly serious as far as the average Evangelical is concerned. It is a scurrilous lie to suggest that we would gladly affirm people without taking that doctrine, for which we are frequently belittled, seriously. As I noted in this previous post:

Our main concern is not our Iranian brother and sister’s asylum application. Our main concern is to see the lost who would perish in Hell for eternity forgiven and made secure in Christ. Our first priority is the souls of those who come through the doors of the church. We will go to court for anyone whom we can affirm as a genuine believer and will plead their case to the best of our ability. But we will never affirm as a believer – whether in the form of a witness statement, going to court, receiving baptism or coming into membership of the church – someone whom we are unsure is a believer. We do a grave disservice to any asylum seeker if we affirm them as believers when they are not. Any person we comfort in sin and rejection of Christ – no matter how successful before a tribunal judge – has received no favour from us.

If Dominic Lawson understood the reality of Evangelical doctrine, he would at least understand this.

What is more, he fails to reckon with the fact that there are certain questions we are always asked in court. Whilst some concern the credibility of our processes, we are almost always asked this: do you ever say ‘no’ to people? That is, do you say no to coming to court for people. Which we do.

Part of having a credible process for determining genuine faith is that we will say no. Not only does our church say ‘no, we will not attend court for you’, but we say ‘no, we will not baptise you’ – because we aren’t sure about belief – and we practice meaningful church discipline by removing people from membership too. I am often told that we simply want to up our membership figures. That claim is seen to be hollow when I point out that in the same members’ meeting that we vote on people’s entrance to membership through baptism we vote on removing people from membership too. If our concern is simply to up our numbers, why do we remove people from membership? If all we are concerned about is getting people over the line, why are we quick to remove them from membership when we can no longer affirm their standing in Christ?

Lawson, by way of the Church of England, goes on to state:

Swealmeen had no criminal record. But even if he had, this would not have altered the outlook of the Church. Its attitude to those in prison is similar: for reasons that are simultaneously altruistic and institutionally self-interested, its priests and lay preachers see repentance where skilled psychologists would identify deception.

He goes on:

Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and formidable critic of the way false claims of rehabilitation and repentance are too often believed (with dreadful consequences for subsequent victims of the prematurely released), told me: “The whole criminal justice system is suffused with reclamation theology. Right up to the highest levels.”

He went on: “When I was writing a report on the handling of Islamist extremists in our jails for the government in 2016, at least three of the top figures in the management of the prison service were lay preachers. Full of happy-clappy nonsense. These people are desperately well meaning, determined to see good, or indeed God, in everyone. And one bishop admitted to me that within the prison system their chaplains see themselves as being in competition for souls — the main rival being the imams.” Given that Church of England attendances have been falling for decades, it is not hard to see why prison chaplains (like priests on the outside) can be deluded by opportunist professions of conversion, quite apart from their admirable trait of concern for the despised and rejected.

What ulterior motive do we have for affirming belief where it does not exist? It doesn’t bring us any extra money, we don’t get any great kudos for it and we certainly don’t believe it brings any glory to God. As I have often pointed out, we say ‘no’ to more people than we say ‘yes’. In fact, we are only too aware of the damage that we will do – not just to the person in question – but to the church itself if we go affirming belief in people where there are none. Despite the clear bias here, there seems to be no recognition that Jesus himself taught us to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Jesus simply doesn’t call us to credulity nor wants his people to be gulls.

But it also bears saying, the charge that we ‘see good, or indeed God, in everyone’ is demonstrably untrue. How can Evangelicals and Reformed believers – who affirm the doctrine of Hell and a belief in both Original Sin and Total Depravity – credibly be accused of seeing good in everyone? It is like Lawson thinks we haven’t read Romans 3:9-18. Nor do we ‘see God’ in everyone. How can we? The whole point at issue is whether somebody has credibly converted to Christianity. If we ‘see God in everyone’ why would we want or need them to convert? What is conversion, even, if we see God in everyone already? We are not universalists. If what is meant is that we are so desperate for converts that we just will people over the line, we have to contend with everything I have said earlier. It doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Do I think there are churches out there who have shoddy processes for affirming faith? Yes I do. Do I think that some Christians are far too quick to affirm genuine faith based on very little? Yes I do. But it bears saying those things are almost always found out in court. When churches are asked to demonstrate their processes. When they are asked to explain how many times they have been to court for asylum seekers and how often they turn down the opportunity to appear. When they are asked what evidence they look for to assess a credible claim of faith. Whether they see people being baptised and joining their church after they have received their right to remain or not. These are not unusual questions, but are the norm. Churches with shoddy processes and a gullible get them over the line mentality will be found out. In Al Swealmeen’s case, his asylum application wasn’t granted. You can make your argument as to whether that is because of the shoddy cathedral process or the bias of the system if you want. But the idea that this is being driven by some Evangelical desire to just up our numbers, whatever is the case for the CofE, is most certainly not at issue in our experience or for those churches like ours.

Of course, the agenda of the article is clear. Churches are full of well-meaning, simple-minded dolts and asylum seekers who find their way into churches are merely playing the system. Sadly, there is no concern for the many genuine converts who are seeking to flee dangerous countries for whom this sort of reporting is deeply damaging. Not only is it broadly untrue, so far as many (particularly Evangelical) churches are concerned, it will only add to a belief amongst many that asylum seekers are fraudulently playing the system. It will make it that much harder for churches to prove those genuine converts really have rejected Islam and come to trust in Christ. The Home Office especially, but the courts also, already have a jaundiced view of churches along the lines outlined by Lawson. This sort of comment article further erodes the ability of churches to speak on behalf of those they know.

But my question comes down to this: who, if not churches, are credibly placed to assess genuine Christian conversion? Why would a few hours in the Home Office interview prove more than the months and months of time spent (often daily) with local churches? How can courts, who often display woeful knowledge of theological and denominational differences, judge what amounts to being a true believer? When the Home Office ask questions like, ‘how many candle are on an advent candle?’ or ‘on what ground does the church baptise infants?’ to someone attending a Baptist church, why do we assume it is the church who are the credulous, stupid ones? If a church leader, who can demonstrate knowledge of a person over a matter of months or years, is not deemed a reasonable guide on genuine belief, who realistically could ever be deemed credible?