Mitres off to the Archbishop of Canterbury for inviting ‘a family or two’ of refugees into his home. Well, not specifically into his home but into a four-bedroom cottage that sits in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. Opening up your second home to refugees is becoming quite fashionable among people who have more houses than they have hats or, indeed, mitres. Bob Geldof has offered refugees use of his Kent home as well as his London flat. The Pope has instructed that Vatican lodgings should be made available to a few families. This refugee crisis is proving easier to solve than we first thought. By my quick calculation, that’s possibly up to 10 families already fixed up. Just another two hundred thousand to go. If somebody could persuade Cliff Richard to open up his various villas, we might be able to house the lot by Christmas.
I don’t suppose this is the time to talk about tenancy agreements and how long refugees will be allowed to stay in the cottage. No doubt it’s until they’re ‘back on their feet’ or when Syria returns to normality, though who knows when that may be. My advice to any refugee family soon to call the Archbishop their landlord would be that you might as well pick your curtains. There won’t be many places available in London as comfortable, spacious, or as centrally located as a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. And who, frankly, will have the audacity to move you on? The headlines write themselves should you outstay your welcome: ‘Archbishop chucks out refugees’; ‘Vicar evictor!’; ‘Welby seeing you!’
The story exemplifies the way the problem is being variously considered. Fair-minded men such as Justin Welby, the Pope, and Bob Geldof understandably concern themselves with the moral dimension. Moral problems tend to have simple answers such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The refugee crisis certainly has a moral component to which the answer should always be an unequivocal ‘yes’. However, it is largely a practical challenge meaning the answer should largely also be ‘it’s not that easy’. The Archbishop has a finite number of cottages at his disposal in the very same way that the government has a finite amount of housing, a finite number of hospital beds, a finite number of school places. There are also a finite number of refugees but potentially their numbers far exceed the resources any country has available. Short-sighted government policy also means that we still only have one Bob Geldof.
So the telling part of the Archbishop’s gesture isn’t that he’s allowing families into Lambeth Palace. It’s that he’s actually closing his doors to the rest. In a sense, the Archbishop of Canterbury is being far less Christian than the supposedly villainous Hungarian border police who have already admitted far more than ‘a family or two’.
If the Archbishop of Canterbury is sincerely arguing that we’re not doing enough, he should allow any and all refugee families into Lambeth Palace. It might get a little crowded but if he is genuinely outraged by the government’s ‘very slim’ response, then the subsequent chaos would at least demonstrate why this is not simply a matter of saying that ‘Jesus was a refugee’.