Martin Charlesworth
An open heart and an open door

For most of our national history, since the Norman Conquest, Britain has not experienced a large influx of refugees. There were two exceptions: the Huguenots in the seventeenth century and the Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both came in large numbers when their lives and security were being threatened elsewhere in Europe.

All that changed in the post-war period. Suddenly the UK became the destination of choice for a whole variety of different groups for all sorts of reasons. Indo-Pakistanis and Afro-Caribbeans came here to find work and build a new life. Adi Amin forced the Ugandan Asians out in the 1970s. Arabs have sought refuge in the UK from hostile regimes in the Middle East. Then came the eastern Europeans: Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians and others. These EU citizens took advantage of the EU’s provision of freedom of movement. They came to seek work opportunities and fluency in English.

And now another major refugee issue is upon us, arising from civil conflict across the Middle East – especially in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Libya.

British society is changing as a result of an unprecedented level of immigration in recent decades. Since the 1980s we have had a consistent net surplus of immigrants arriving compared with emigrants leaving the country. A number of distinctive demographics have emerged: Muslims form a significant proportion of the population of a number of major cities; London is becoming one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world; large concentrations of eastern Europeans are to be found in some parts of East Anglia… and so it goes on.

No wonder immigration is a hot issue politically. No wonder the EU referendum has excited such strong emotions with it’s implications for immigration – apart from anything else!

What perspectives guide the thinking of Christians on this issue? The Bible has much to teach us about it. Being a refugee was a common experience in biblical times (from Abraham onwards), as was being an economic migrant (the 12 tribes of Israel seeking food in Egypt). It is commonplace to mention in this context that Jesus was a refugee when his family went to Egypt in fear of their safety from Herod the Great.

Two aspects of the biblical story are particularly important in helping us find perspective. First, the laws governing foreigners in ancient Israel. Second, the cosmopolitan nature of the church.

Concerning ancient Israel: despite the apparent ethnic separatism implied in the unique laws of the Jews, it is interesting that there was ample provision for foreigners to join the people of Israel. National borders were rather permeable in those days. The key to joining ethnic Israel was not your racial pedigree but your willingness to accept the spiritual and moral values of Israel. While borders were permeable, values were not.

Concerning the church: it is arguable that the early church was the most multicultural religion of the Roman world. It opened its doors to all ethnic groups at a time when religion was often a reflection of national or regional culture alone.

So it is fair to conclude that the Church of today should have an open door and an open heart to refugees seeking a new home in our country.