U-turn on faith schools a symptom of undesirable 'New Deal'

U-turn on faith schools a symptom of undesirable 'New Deal'

London, UK - OCT 27, 2006 The scrapping of plans to require new faith schools in England to raise intakes from other religions is a sign of an emerging, but undesirable and problematic 'New Deal' between faith groups and government, the think tank Ekklesia has today warned.

The New Deal, which is described in a book by Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley entitled "Faith and Politics After Christendom" is a revision and modification of the inherited 'Christendom' approach, on a multi-faith basis.

The deal, which involves a plethora of new consultation mechanisms like the Home Office faith communities unit, concerns an increasing ‘faith- based’ element in social provision, welfare, education and voluntary-based public initiatives. It is a policy and an approach based on two sets of urgent and coinciding needs:

1. Government (of whatever political complexion) faces a crisis of authority and an entrenched difficulty in funding and equipping adequate social provision in a market-dominated, global economy. Greater demand for public services in the face of the increased pressures of modern living runs in tension with the wish to keep taxes low and the problem of adequately delivering provision. This is accompanied by popular anxiety over ‘moral order’ and cohesion in a fast, fragmented culture.

2. Faith communities (not least the churches) are looking for a new role, new finance and a new credibility in their battle against long-term decline and public indifference. However, in spite of their difficulties, they still have not only residual resources (money and buildings, often overtly or covertly state- funded) and a strong moral tradition, but also perhaps the largest pool of volunteers in the country.

Faith groups are recognised by government as an important source of 'social capital'. The obvious ‘solution’, both Tony Blair and David Cameron agree, is to give religious groups and institutions a ‘stake’ in a new welfare deal. Arguments ensue over where and how, but the ‘why’ is taken for granted. The vested interests fit together well.

But the think tank warns, as evidenced in the latest u-turn by government over admissions to faith schools, questions about social justice and civil rights (the inclusiveness or otherwise of what is being offered) often become compromised and ‘managed’. Those who oppose aspects of the New Deal are written off as a few secularists or malcontents, and others – so it is claimed – are perfectly happy.

In reality, however, the New Deal is not a solution to the pressing issues of workable government, economy, welfare, social inclusion and the public affirmation of religious communities in public life – it is more a reconfiguration of an old problem with its basic premises and problems intact.

As seen in the latest decision over faith schools, it often entails imposing sometimes dubious faith-based strategies on those who lack choice or influence. It hampers the ability of churches and others to offer a radical critique of the social order, co-opting them instead into the role of propping up existing policies, projects and structures. In this sense, it is a rather mixed blessing and bane.

Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley, author of Faith and Politics After Christendom which unpacks the New Deal in detail said; "The New Deal is more an extension of Christendom by other means, and in a multi-faith way, than a fresh way forward. Politically, it is based on the idea that religion can be ‘incorporated’ into the apparatus of ruling, managing and providing.

"Theologically, it assumes that faith – rather than being rooted in a free choice, a free expression and a free community – can be developed and propagated through statutory, coercive, subliminal or functionalist means.

"All this imperils both plural governance and religious integrity. As a ‘solution’ it is deeply flawed, even if some of its outworking can be shown to have benefits. That is especially evident in current arguments over publicly-funded ‘faith schools’, where elements of inclusion or good practice cannot disguise the wider divisive effect of selection on the basis of religion."