address to Wessex Synod, 21 Nov 09 responding to the following paragraph in the Synod Executive report :
On behalf of the Ministries Committee of the General Assembly, the Synod is required to verify that all stipendiary ministers and Church Related Community Workers are legally entitled to work in the United Kingdom. It is hoped that as far as possible this process of verification can be completed at the meeting of Synod, to which all ministers have been asked to bring their passports or other documents.
I did not think it right that this paragraph of the Synod Executive report should pass without note. This is a first for the United Reformed Church - to witness the demeaning spectacle of ministers queueing to present their passports for photocopying by Synod staff. We have not been here before. I wanted to draw attention to it, because the majority of members of Synod may not even be aware that this has been happening over lunch.
What this represents is one more step in the creeping criminalisation of the inhabitants of this island.
In the strange world of immigration law, you are guilty until you can prove your innocence. Not so very long ago it was only foreign-looking people or newly-arrived people that were presumed to be aliens until they could show papers to prove they were here legally. More recently, aliens who dared to work here without a permit have been redefined as criminals. Now, it seems, we are all criminals - we are all presumed guilty of working here illegally - until we can prove otherwise.
And now the screw has been given one more turn : if we ministers can't or won't prove our entitlement to be working here, our General Secretary faces criminal prosecution. Further still - the Home Office will punish our church by denying work permits to any overseas minister whom we might like to call, and by expelling those that we have here now.
Without going into the detail of what is going on here, what this exercise represents is (to use a Biblical image) the smearing of blood on the 'doorpost' of our Church's 'household' to ward off the avenging angel - in this case, the avenging angel of the State, not a liberating God.
Friends, this is not a benign angel. Only last Monday I sat through a court hearing in which one of my church adherents was appealing against removal from this country. I witnessed the demeaning spectacle of a Home Office lawyer trying to separate a little boy from his father on a legal technicality that took no account of the actual circumstances of the people involved. He even suggested that it was adequate for an 8-year old to maintain contact with his father by email. How far is this from the gracious God, whom we celebrated at the beginning of our meeting as knowing and caring for every hair on our head? How ironic that the lectionary readings for this Sunday offer us Daniel's night vision of the arrogant powers getting their comeuppance in the divine courtroom, and Jesus standing before Pilate in all his vulnerability. Believe me, we are not dealing with benign forces here; we are looking into the eyes of Pilate.
And, like Pilate, this avenging angel is not very discriminating. The same barrister who was defending this appeal (who is a member of my church) told me last night that in the last two years she has had to fight on two occasions to get people released from detention centres prior to their deportation - one had been detained for two months, the other for three - both of whom had full British passports. So even a British passport may be inadequate protection!
Thank you for allowing me to speak, moderator. I did not think that this silent sorry spectacle should pass without some spiritual discernment and perhaps a prayer of lamentation. I very much hope that I am not the only one in this room who shares this deep regret and sense of foreboding. Indeed, I know from a few conversations already that I am not alone. But I wonder whether you would be willing to test the feeling of the meeting on this matter? I have no resolution to bring - there is nothing, after all, to be done about it now, and certainly not without a proper examination of the issues. But it would be valuable, I think, to have an indication of Synod's feeling.
(The moderator asked those who shared the sentiments expressed to indicate. No count was taken, but I myself could see perhaps one or two hands not raised amongst the two hundred or so present).