Representatives of six major church bodies have been challenged to reconsider their position in relation to an equalities forum from which they walked away earlier this month, after criticising the stance of non-religious groups.
The Church of England, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, the Free Churches’ Group and the ecumenical body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland left the Religion and Belief Consultative Group (RBCG), without prior notice, in a move that the Rev Peter Colwell of CTBI says they hope “will precipitate the folding up of the group” - according to a report in The Times.
The RBCG was established in 2004 to provide a joint framework for faith communities and non-religious belief organisations to keep in touch with developments on equality issues.
It has been a reference group for the religion and belief representatives on the Steering Group for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It receives no government funding and attendance is by agreement, though some suggest that it has acquired a “semi-formal” role.
Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Jain, Sikh, Baha’i, Muslim and other Christian and humanist attendees remain in the Group, which is nevertheless having to reconsider its future as a result of the churches’ refusal to participate.
The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, head of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England, claimed the RBCG was no longer “fit for purpose”. He accused both the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of “[using] the group to argue for the exclusion of religious voices from public life.”
Both organisations vigorously deny this charge, although the NSS regards what it calls “supernaturalism” to be “based upon ignorance”, and interprets religious freedom in terms of the belief that “the proper place for religion is in the place of worship or home.”
The Church of England says it “supported the objectives of the Equality Bill and many of its provisions” but wanted “changes to some parts of the Bill that would have caused us practical problems.”
NSS representative Peter Vlachos responded: “[The churches] generally wanted unfettered freedom to discriminate and because we opposed that, they’ve now walked away.”
National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson, declared: “The idea that we are trying to drive religion completely out of public life is also a lie, invented by these religious groups to conceal their shameless attempt to exclude us.”
The RBCG chair Barney Leith, from the Baha’i community, has expressed sadness at the way the story has been presented in the media, and disappointment at the churches leaving, as have other members of the Group.
He said in a comment on The Times website that it was untrue to claim that the group "has collapsed in acrimony", and its future is still to be considered by the remaining members.
British Humanist Association chief executive Andrew Copson said of the Church of England's specific allegations against the BHA, which have now been made twice within a fortnight: “This is a serious accusation which is totally untrue.”
In a letter to The Times newspaper Copson pointed out that the BHA co-founded the Religion and Belief Consultative Group with faith groups “out of our awareness of the need for a mechanism whereby religious and non-religious groups could tackle emerging questions of equality together.” He added: “We have never strayed from that purpose.”
Mr Copson continued: “In spite of the Churches' exodus, there are still Christian groups that remain part of the RBCG, along with Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Baha’is and humanists. Though we may disagree from time to time and discussion may be occasionally uncomfortable, it is a necessity in a shared society, and it is a shame that the churches feel they can no longer be part of that.”
The BHA has made it clear that it “works for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief and speech” and while opposing the privileging of religion, seeks to “work with others of different beliefs for the common good.”
Joy Madeiros, CEO of the Oasis Charitable Trust, a major evangelical service agency, has meanwhile written an open letter to the churches, noting “a felt sense of frustration in having to share conversations with those who represent non-religious beliefs”, but arguing that positive conversation remains vital.
She encourages church colleagues to “remember that the point of the RBCG is to discuss and explore equality in society as it relates to religion and belief,” adding: “We miss the point if we forget the issue about equality and instead only seek a discussion about the role of religion.”
Ms Madeiros says that the continuing task of monitoring and evaluating the understanding and implementation of equality legislation and, particularly in the first instance consultation on non-statutory guidance, “may require a different type of RBCG to be constituted.”
She continues: “It may be that it should involve more practitioners – people involved on a daily basis with Unions, with Local Authority and National Government officials, with employers, with the press and media, etc – who can report on the ‘on the ground understanding’ of the legislation.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which has argued that churches should engage positively with the equalities agenda rather than seeking continual opt-outs and exemptions, commented: “If religious and non-religious groups are to tackle emerging questions of equality together constructively, they need to be able to model that in the way they do things as well as the content of their exchanges.”
He said: “Walk-outs by the churches are not the way forward. They are either an admission of defeat or a declaration of self-sufficiency - neither of which is an encouraging Christian position. Hopefully there will be some re-thinking, re-linking and re-configuring going on behind the scenes, enabling all parties to move beyond public rows towards fresh re-engagement.”
CTBI has since told Ekklesia that the churches wish to find another way of relating to secular and humanist groups.