Today parliament will be debating co-operation between local government and faith groups.
This debate follows on from the Faith in the Community report produced by the Evangelical Alliance for Christians in Parliament. It finds that a large number of local authorities (LAs) are aware of the huge contribution churches and other faith groups bring to their local communities and seek to engage constructively with them. As I’ve mentioned before in my initial article of the report’s launch, without the passionate contribution churches make to our society, it would be a far poorer place. Today’s debate is an opportunity to show that churches and Christian organisations are committed to their communities, passionate about serving them, and determined to stand on the side of the poorest and the most vulnerable.
The current government has been making lots of positive noises about working with faith groups – just this week the Prime Minister said: “It is encouraging that Christianity still plays such a vital role in our national life” – but words without actions mean very little. There are still plenty of opportunities for local government in particular to increase their partnerships with faith groups, but the Faith in the Community report highlights a number of significant barriers to more effective relationships.
My previous article on Faith in the Community gave an overview of the findings, but there is still much that it did not cover. This is an opportunity to dig a bit deeper.
The obvious place to start is to ask the question if and why churches and LAs should work together. Gary Streeter, the chair of Christians in Parliament, in the report’s summary wrote that:
‘In places where care, compassion and charity are most needed… 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.
‘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.’
LAs have a role to serve their communities and churches are doing that too up and down the country. Sometimes these roles overlap such as working with young people or the homeless. Sometimes churches fill the gaps when LAs are not present on the ground with initiatives like food banks and street pastors. What the report found was that where LAs and faith groups are talking and working together in partnership (whether loose or formal), they can mutually benefit each other and more importantly their communities. This is not necessarily on a funding level, although it can be, but more importantly it is about an awareness of what the different parties are doing and offering respect and support for each other.
Looking at the report’s findings, most of the hurdles that need to be overcome to make these relationships work better in many parts of the country can be boiled down to ignorance and language.
Religious illiteracy is a common problem in LAs. At the core of Christian doctrine is the concept of freedom and grace. The report found that this can present problems for secular authorities who require interaction with religions which can be clearly identified and quantified. Religion is often treated as another stream to fit neatly into the equalities frameworks that LAs are bound by. By working within the rigid framework of a policy which says all religion and belief systems must be considered equally important, faith as a core, motivating identity in civil society is reduced to a homogeneous generic characteristic which everyone, whether by choice or abstention is a part of. If churches and other faith groups are placed in bureaucratic boxes with little effort made to understand their distinct motivations to serve their communities, then misunderstandings over such things as whether services are exclusively for believers are bound to happen often raising detrimental prejudices. An extreme example of this is the way the Borough of Richmond upon Thames responded to a question about how it engages with faith groups:
“A recent Equality Impact Needs Assessment (EINA) on the draft Emotional Wellbeing Mental Health (EWMH) Strategy (2012), for children and young people identified a need for capturing more data on service users and faith. This is being pursued further as part of the EWMH strategy implementation. Furthermore, Equality and Diversity (E&D) has been mainstreamed as part of the EWMH programme and so each programme board meeting has a standard agenda item relation to E&D (which includes Faith) and there is a designated E&D representative who will be attending every programme board meeting to champion E&D within the programme. Since Faith data has been identified as a key area then this is one of the actions that will be championed, monitored and held to account by the E&D lead. In order for faith groups to be involved in the whole programme it is important that there is an appropriate forum within which they can shape the EWMH agenda. As part of the EWMH programme, we are in the process of defining a comprehensive communication strategy which will include an invitation to faith groups to participate in an EWMH network/forum. This is a forum which will allow people to feed views and relevant factors into the delivery of training around EWMH and services to fulfil the needs of different faith groups. As part of the EWMH strategy consultation, there has been some feedback around the appropriateness of organisations from a religious denomination being able to deliver non-judgemental and inclusive services to the public.”
Language such as this is not only baffling but likely to turn off any faith group wanting to build bridges and work with such an authority.
Another big challenge that LAs need to deal with carefully is that of secularism. This is what Faith in the Community has to say:
‘It is vital to draw a distinction between the appropriate responsibility for public institutions to not favour one set of beliefs over others, and the efforts sometimes made – purportedly in the name of fairness – which act to remove religious beliefs from the public square. The first approach looks for a secular decision-making process which asks that decisions are made for reasons other than religious beliefs. Unlike secularism, it does not ask that religious arguments are removed from public debate and discussion, but it does require that such arguments are not the sole or deciding reason.
‘The challenge of this approach is finding a method of discussion, debate and decision-making which allows room for religious arguments without privileging them. In many situations, while local authorities would not explicitly seek to remove religious beliefs from the public square, the impact of their policies and procedures is such that little room is left for them; and faith groups are left feeling they have to quieten their beliefs in order to receive a fair hearing.
‘This is what we mean when we observe a default secularism, which is sustained by the myth of secular neutrality. We accept that public bodies such as local authorities have secular responsibilities in carrying out their functions in a society with a plurality of beliefs. However, rather than accepting that there are many voices which should speak into public debates, too often this is reduced to one set of beliefs: those of nonreligious belief groups such as humanists and secularists. Alternatively it favours those willing and able to quieten or dilute their beliefs in the public sphere. This provides an unintended privilege for the voice of non-faith groups. A further impact of this approach is that in asking religious groups to use non-religious arguments to make their case, they are privileging a decision-making process that is secular and as such may not be supported by all faith groups.
‘Camarthenshire County Council explicitly stated: “It is important that the position of the council as a secular institution is preserved.” We would suggest that the focus of local authorities should not be to become as secular as possible, but to be more truly plural, encompassing a range of beliefs and views and not indicating that religious views are at best tolerated and frequently unwelcome.”’
The challenge of these issues are the reason why it is so important that today’s debate in Parliament is happening. What is good should be praised and encouraged, with effective models of partnership being shared. Where the picture is less rosy, attitudes and systems that block healthy practice need to be tackled and addressed.
It is in everyone’s interests, whatever their beliefs, that churches and LAs increasingly understand each other and work effectively together. Please pray that today’s debate in Parliament becomes another step to making this happen more frequently and the value of churches’ work being increasingly acknowledged.