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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Harriet Sherwood

Senior C of E figure rejects claim of asylum-seeker baptism ‘conveyor belt’

Pews in an Anglican Church
Pews in an Anglican Church. Simpson said no one else involved with St Cuthbert’s church recognised the picture presented by Matthew Firth. Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

A former vicar who claimed the Church of England was complicit in a “conveyor belt” of baptisms of asylum seekers presented an unrecognisable picture and was known to “take a right-of-centre stance in immigration”, a senior clergyman has told MPs.

The Ven Rick Simpson, archdeacon of Auckland in the diocese of Durham, said that neither he nor anyone he had spoken to at St Cuthbert’s church in Darlington recognised the “picture that was presented” by the ex-vicar, both in articles in the Daily Telegraph and in evidence to MPs.

Matthew Firth, who was priest-in-charge at St Cuthbert’s for two years until spring 2020, claimed that he was blowing the whistle on asylum seeker baptisms involving Muslim middle-men and cash changing hands.

“I decided I had to put a stop to the conveyor belt and veritable industry of asylum baptisms that was going on,” he told the Telegraph in February. His claims came shortly after it emerged that Abdul Ezedi, who carried out a chemical attack on a woman in south London, had been granted asylum after claiming to have converted to Christianity.

In a nine-page submission to the parliamentary home affairs select committee, Simpson said: “No one else to whom I have spoken who was involved with St Cuthbert’s, its baptism ministry and its support for asylum seekers at this time recognises the picture that was presented; I was personally involved with St Cuthbert’s in this period, and I do not recognise it. This picture is also deeply problematic when interrogated in the light of the available evidence.”

Simpson, who has oversight of more than 100 churches in the diocese, said records suggested that that out of 189 baptisms at St Cuthbert’s over a 10-year period that included Firth’s two years at the church, 14 were of refugees. Some of the 14 had already been granted asylum status when they were baptised.

Firth claimed that about 280 refugees who had been declined asylum status sought baptism at St Cuthbert’s between early 2018 and early 2020 and that groups were brought to the church by a middleman, to whom money was paid.

Simpson told MPs: “I … cannot find anyone who was involved with these areas of the church’s work who ever saw anything like this number of people regularly coming to (or being brought to) the church, or the church hall, to apply for baptism … No one else saw any one acting as a middleman, or payments being handed to anyone in connection with bringing people to church.”

Simpson conducted regular Sunday morning services at St Cuthbert’s between March 2018 and October 2019. “I never saw anyone ‘bringing’ groups, nor money being handed to anyone … Archdeacons are responsible for ensuring that law and good practice are followed in churches, so are usually attuned to noticing if something is not right or looks suspicious; I saw nothing around the attendance of asylum seekers that looked inappropriate or organised.”

Simpson said it was unlikely that numerous asylum seekers would have continued to “knock on a firmly closed door” at St Cuthbert’s, knowing that Firth “had made it clear within his extensive use of social media at this time that he supported stringent measures to reduce immigration, and this was well known in the town. Of all the Christian clergy in Darlington, Mr Firth was – notoriously – the least likely to be seen as a soft target for any asylum seeker pursuing an inappropriate baptism.”

The ex-vicar was “known to take a right-of-centre stance on immigration”, said Simpson.

Firth had not brought his concerns to any member of the senior staff in the diocese. “The first time that Mr Firth brought this matter to the attention of anyone, it was not to a church leader, but to the Daily Telegraph, and this was six years later, in 2024,” wrote Simpson.

Firth, who quit his post at St Cuthbert’s to join the Free Church of England, has been approached for comment.

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