Back in February 2012 the All-Party Group, Christians in Parliament produced a major report on the freedom of Christians in the UK entitled Clearing the Ground. One of the main findings of the report was that there is widespread religious illiteracy in many public institutions.
In response to this outcome, Christians in Parliament commissioned a follow-up survey to Clearing the Ground to examine the level and type of interactions local authorities have with faith groups focusing particularly on the work done by churches. The report on this survey’s findings entitled Faith in the Community is released today.
155 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales responded to the survey (37 per cent) and the results have given a fresh insight into the contribution of Christians to their local communities seen through the eyes of local authorities.
Unsurprisingly, between different authorities there were wide variations in the awareness and understanding of how much faith groups do in their local areas. Some local authorities responded with uncertainty, and some were even unaware of any work being done locally by faith groups. Indeed, when asked to estimate the percentage of the voluntary and community sector work that was faith-based, the estimates varied from one per cent to 70 per cent. However, overall the survey found that faith groups make a vast contribution to their local communities across a range of both predictable and surprising activities. Repeatedly local authorities cited the role of Trussell Trust food banks, Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty debt advice centres. Other activities were identified which demonstrate the ‘cradle to grave’ support that faith communities provide, from caring for the young and the elderly to helping with dog training and anger management.
There was also a great deal of difference in how local authorities engage with faith groups and their perceptions of them. Many local authorities and faith groups enjoy strong relationships through a mutual enthusiasm to work together. One of the most positive responses came from Doncaster Council:
“One of the aims of most faith groups is to provide support to champion and meet the needs of vulnerable people in the local community. We are all called to serve the people. The fact is that by working together with faith groups we can do and achieve more. Faith groups often stand on the side of the hungry and poor and provide support for those who are grieving.”
However, the research showed there are a number of barriers that restrict engagement, or have been encountered in the process of working with faith groups. This submission from North Yorkshire County Council highlights some of these difficulties:
There is a perceived fear (within parts of the public sector, public and media) that faith groups will seek to use public sector-funded service delivery as a means of increasing the number of followers of that faith group; and/or seek to discriminate between users of public sector-funded service delivery on the basis of the users’ faith or adherence to the beliefs or practices of the faith group, in particular beliefs that are or might appear to be contrary to equality legislation. There is a perceived fear (within faith groups) that local authorities won’t work with and/or don’t value faith groups. Generally, all of these perceptions
are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other – but they do create barriers.
Religious literacy is still one of the greatest hindrances to faith groups and authorities working together effectively. The survey showed that local authorities often have a poor understanding of faith groups, their beliefs and how those beliefs work themselves out in the lives of the faithful. It also found that faith groups often have an equally poor understanding of how local government works and the language that is required to engage with it.
Part of this problem was seen to be that Central Government are abdicating their responsibility in not providing guidance to local authorities on how to develop religious literacy. If they are serious about renewing civil society they need to do more to understand those who are most active at the heart of it.
Many of the local authorities surveyed recognised a gap in their understanding of faith communities, and more must be done to address this. A clear need was demonstrated for improved training on faith issues. Where training was provided it was usually through wider equality and diversity frameworks, which many respondents acknowledged did not improve religious literacy. Occasional examples were uncovered of innovative practice including Faith Trails where different faiths are explained through a tour of religious premises.
There is a significant opportunity for churches to play a role in helping local authorities become more faith-literate. Greater religious literacy is not achieved by local authorities agreeing with faith groups. It is done when time and attention is given to understanding why faith groups do what they do and addressing presumptions and prejudices that can restrict effective partnerships.
The research showed that the barriers to better engagement can often be overcome. Despite challenges in the capacity of both faith groups and local authorities, churches have a well of resources that are vitally needed by our communities at this time. They also demonstrate an unparalleled depth of commitment to their communities, and especially those in poverty.
Churches reach the parts that local authorities cannot. This is because they are located within the communities that they serve. Churches are not only physically there in the fabric of buildings that bring people together, they are made up of people from the rich and the poor, from the young and the old – and compelled by compassion, they are also on the streets and estates of the UK every day. It is encouraging that many of the local authorities surveyed acknowledged this unique social good, realising that faith groups are intimately connected into communities in ways that they will never be able to, and that they are committed to working with the most vulnerable and hardest to reach.
At the end of the report, Gary Streeter, the chair of Christians in Parliament summarises broadly the current state of play and also the potential to make good progress between churches and local authorities in the future:
‘In places where care, compassion and charity are most needed, and the arms of the state are retracting due to a lack of resources, it is churches and other faith groups who are stepping into the breach.
‘What else would they do? Churches have taken this role throughout history, from staying in cities to care for plague victims instead of fleeing to the hills, to providing education and welfare before the state took up the mantle. Churches are, to cite Doncaster Council’s response, on the side of the hungry and the poor. They are the ones who get started before funding bids are accepted, and they are those who stick around after they are cancelled.
‘Even so, although churches, other faith groups and religious charities should be obvious partners of choice for local authorities, this has not always been the case. Too little effort has gone into understanding each other, and as a result barriers – either real or imagined – have arisen to inhibit this vital and vibrant collaboration. Where local authorities and faith groups have taken time to get to know each other, where they have worked together and committed to serve the local community, many of these barriers have fallen by the wayside.
‘In the years ahead, local authorities will have less money and greater demands. Faith groups are not there to plug a gap and be co-opted into quasistatutory services. Nor are they there to simply support or oppose economic policies. Faith groups are at the heart of communities. They always have been, and they will be in increasing numbers in the future. I encourage all local authorities to do all they can to build the strongest possible relationships and make the most of this vast and positive resource. Not least because, enhancing relationships with faith groups will make a difference to people in the greatest need.’