The Christian call to welcome does not nullify the need for justice, says George Pitcher. Whether it’s MPs, entertainers or asylum seekers, the Church’s job is not to judge. That is a matter for the judiciary


Source: Alamy

I reckon Sir Keir Starmer is absolutely right to warmly welcome former Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke’s defection to his Labour Party. I also think that he should see that she faces justice, should allegations that she sought to influence the judiciary in her former husband’s favour be substantiated.

There is no inconsistency between these two views. The first is to do with unconditional welcome; the second to do with judgement. But the latter cannot and should not infringe on the former.

Before anyone accuses me of wanton cakeism (sole prop: Boris Johnson), there are sound theological grounds for these views. But the distinction between them has nothing to do with the oft-heard injunction that we must “love the sinner and hate the sin”. I’ve always found that as smug as it is intellectually inadequate.

Mind, body and soul

The central problem with the love-sinner/hate-sin rubric is that it owes more to ancient Greek philosophy than it does to the religious thought that superseded it. Hellenic thought invariably held to a dualism in human nature. This was most apparent in their view of body and spirit and still has a firm hold in hearts and minds today.

This is the idea that the human corpus is simply a carriage for a superior human spirit, which is liberated at point of death, to float away to enjoy some heavenly version of the good life, unencumbered by boring old flesh and blood.

Welcome comes first. Justice, if necessary, comes down the line

That is not the Christian experience. The story of the resurrection tells us that it is a bodily phenomenon, unrecognisable in its risen form, perhaps, and almost certainly indescribable. But that’s the Gospel account, like it or not.

It is emphatically not eternal life as some kind of supernatural shade. So our physical lives are very much, if not entirely, integrated with spiritual existence. It may be a mystery, but get used to it.

It follows, I think, that other dualisms need to be chased down. And one of them is that sin – that is, separation from the divine order – is in some way distinguishable from the sinner. Not so. It’s a factor of humanity’s postlapsarian existence, our “fallen” state, that sinners are inseparable from their sin, which in turn separates us from the divine. Our job, if you like, is to find our way back.

Proper judgement

To return to Starmer’s task with the former Mrs Elphicke, he is simply not called to judge her, as yet, for anything she may (or may not) have done in her earlier life. All the Gospel precedents tell us that he should welcome her. Just one is the parable of the prodigal son, which is invested with the revelation that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 good people who don’t need to repent (Luke 15).

On this reading, Starmer has no choice but to welcome Elphicke as his own. If it turns out that she has committed any kind of judicial offence, then that is an entirely separate matter. And what’s more, it must be dealt with in a judicial system that emulates divine judgement, which is simultaneously immutable and merciful.

This has implications across our public life, for those who exercise power in serious or in trivial ways. In the first category must fall former home secretaries Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, who in separate ways claimed that churches were deliberately baptising asylum seekers to assist their cases – in one instance, an absurd charge was that we were practising such bogus baptisms on “an industrial scale.”

Sinners are inseparable from their sin, which separates us from the divine. Our job is to find our way back

This was to misunderstand the Christian foundations of our state and its established Church. We have no option other than to welcome all-comers – and all sinners – to our churches. It is for the state to exercise judgement and justice if that welcome is proven to have been abused.

Another case is the serial pantomime pirate Russell Brand. There is nothing lightweight about the multiple sexual-abuse accusations brought against him, but unlike home secretaries he has occupied professional activities that are essentially trivial.

Nevertheless, we’re bound to take his baptism in the Thames, for all its literal and figurative toxicity, seriously. It’s for others to exercise judgment and justice in other areas of his life.

The right order

This isn’t a cop-out. We are definitely called to judgement in another sense. We exercise judgement every time we recognise the gospel in human behaviours. Or, indeed, if we fail to.

The point is that this kind of judgement can’t be allowed to devalue the quality of our welcome. We can’t discriminate between those who come to faith, precisely because we’re all in this together. The welcome comes first. Justice, if necessary, comes down the line.

Let’s be clear: Elphicke may turn out to be a massive embarrassment to Starmer (as any of us might be). But that should have – and so far as we can see has had – no effect on the quality of his welcome of her. He has no valid alternative available.