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21 April 2022

Don’t try to take on the Church of England, Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister’s attacks draw attention to Justin Welby speaking Christian truth to cynical power.

By Michael Coren

Boris Johnson has found Jesus. Or at least one of the messiah’s representatives on Earth, and given him a good kicking. The Prime Minister complained that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had made some entirely reasonable criticisms of the government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda, had been “less vociferous” in his criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This is, of course, total nonsense. Welby has repeatedly condemned Moscow, describing the barbarous attack on its neighbour as a “great act of evil”. But then factual accuracy has never been a strong point in this government’s responses.

It was once said, perhaps by Benjamin Disraeli, that the Church of England was the Tory party at prayer. That, however, changed a long time ago, and at its best the Church now speaks for and as the liberal conscience of the country. Which is something that Johnson and his people know, just as Margaret Thatcher did when she attacked the Bishop of Durham for his defence of striking miners.

Thing is, this isn’t really about the Church, an institution about which Johnson and those close to him have seldom shown any concern. It’s about perception, polarisation and party base. The formula has been perfected by right-wing leaders in Europe and North America: find an enemy, accuse it of being more powerful than it is, intrusive, arrogant, out of touch, and — of course — full of bleeding hearts. That a Christian organisation is based on the notion of bleeding hearts simply doesn’t matter.

Much as I’d like to say otherwise, the Church of England hasn’t been a major player in the body politic for many years. As it experiences its latest episode of introspection and internal discord, its public statements are often laudable but Westminster, and the larger public, doesn’t usually listen. Until and unless, that is, one of those statements can be exploited by Boris Johnson as yet another example of the elitism that only he can overcome. The Church now joins the BBC and the Labour Party as an enemy of “real” Britain.

Welby’s criticisms of the government probably had no ulterior motive, but the result has been to give the Church a rare prominence. Those who support the government’s Rwanda nastiness would not have been fans of the C of E in the first place, and those who oppose the Prime Minister will be impressed by a man of faith appearing to speak Christian truth to cynical power. It is perhaps reminiscent of the results of Rowan Williams’s guest edit of the New Statesman in 2011, which questioned the policies of the coalition government as not being in the country’s interests.

We’ll see if Johnson’s decision to indulge in some Kulturkampf pays off for him in the days to come. Alastair Campbell is reputed to have said, “We don’t do God”, but it is rather nice to see him back in the headlines. God that is, not Campbell.

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