Last Saturday, he stood before a throne at Westminster Abbey and gingerly placed a crown on the head of King Charles III. On Wednesday, he stood up in the gilded chamber of the House of Lords to denounce the government’s new migration bill as “morally unacceptable and politically impractical.”
It has been a momentous week for the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby — one that captures his distinctive place in British life. Not just the senior bishop of the Church of England, the man who crowns monarchs, he is also a member of the unelected upper chamber of Britain’s Parliament.
Archbishop Welby won praise for his sure-footed handling of the coronation ceremony. But his fiery intervention in the immigration debate has drawn a tart response from government ministers and other Conservative politicians, who say the law is needed to curb the number of migrants who illegally cross the English Channel in small boats.
“He’s wrong on both counts,” the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, told the BBC. “There’s nothing moral about allowing the pernicious trade of people smugglers to continue,” he said. “I disagree with him respectfully.”
“By bringing forward this proposal,” Mr. Jenrick continued, “we make it clear that if you come across illegally on a small boat, you will not find a route to life in the U.K. That will have a serious deterrent effect.”
It is not unusual for Archbishop Welby, 67, to weigh in on political or social-justice issues. He has spoken out on same-sex marriage, tax policy, rising energy bills and what he called the divisive effect of Brexit. But his speech in the House of Lords carried extra weight because the migration law is a pillar of the government’s legislative agenda, and the law, which would remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrive in small boats, has gotten a hostile reception in the chamber.
Given the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons — currently 64 seats — the House of Lords is unlikely to torpedo the legislation. But it can slow down the process by attaching amendments to the bill and sending it back to the Commons, where the Conservatives would then have to override it.
Archbishop Welby’s words won front-page headlines in British newspapers, making him an influential voice in one of the country’s most fraught policy debates. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has come under harsh criticism from human-rights experts for threatening to put migrants who arrive in Britain illegally on one-way flights to Rwanda, with which Britain has a relocation agreement.
But cracking down on immigration remains popular with the pro-Brexit voters who helped give the Conservative Party a landslide victory in the general election of 2019. Mr. Sunak must call the next election by January 2025. For that reason, political analysts said they expected Mr. Sunak to keep pushing the legislation, regardless of criticism from human rights groups or religious leaders like the archbishop.
“What’s fascinating is that the Church of England was once nicknamed the Tory Party at prayer,” said Baroness Rosalind Scott, member of the House of Lords from the Liberal Democratic Party. “But the Tory Party has drifted rightward, while the Church of England has either stayed in place or drifted left a bit. It is very interesting to see that the bishops are falling out with the government on this issue.”
Archbishop Welby argued that the legislation was fundamentally flawed because it did not take account of the drivers of mass migration, from war to climate change. As an expression of social policy, he said, the bill “fails to live up to our history, our moral responsibility and our political and international interests.”
“We cannot take everyone and nor should we,” he said. “But this bill has no sense at all of the long-term and of the global nature of the challenge that the world faces. It ignores the reality that migration must be engaged with at source, as well as in the channel, as if we, as a country, were unrelated to the rest of the world.”
For all his criticism, Archbishop Welby called for amending the legislation rather than throwing it out. The Liberal Democratic lords proposed a motion to dismiss the bill altogether, which garnered little support.
A onetime oil-company employee who only began training as a priest in 1987, Archbishop Welby has long sought to balance religious tradition with a changing society. He supports the consecration of women as bishops and included them in the coronation ceremony. But other proposals have met with mixed success.
In the days leading up to the coronation, he proposed expanding the oath of homage to the new king to encompass millions of people across Britain and its far-flung realms, rather than just members of the aristocracy.
But the gesture backfired, with critics on social media saying it was presumptuous and politically tin-eared in a democracy. Archbishop Welby hastened to clarify that the oath was purely voluntary.
The archbishop’s assault on the migration law has focused new attention of the role of the Church of England in the House of Lords. Bishops have had seats in the chamber for centuries, dating to their status as landowners in the early English Parliament. There are now 26 bishops with seats, five of whom, including Archbishop Welby, get them automatically because of their rank (the rest are chosen by seniority).
Critics have argued for casting the bishops out of the House of Lords, saying their presence is outmoded and undemocratic in a country that is increasingly secular and where the Church of England is only one of several faiths.
“The oddity is having bishops in the lords at all,” said Peter Ricketts, a retired British diplomat who is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, meaning that he does not represent a party. “I agree there is a good case for ending this practice.”
“But since we have them, it doesn’t shock me that they would speak up, including where draft laws raise moral issues,” Mr. Ricketts continued. “That’s, in a way, the point of having them, after all.”