Churches should not misuse public service ethos, says bishop

By staff writers
17 Sep 2010

Churches involved by government in delivering social provision to the whole community should not use this position to push their own agendas, a Catholic bishop said last night (16 September 2010).

Speaking on BBC1 television's Newsnight, in response to a speech to Anglican bishops in Oxford by Government Minister Baroness Warsi, Bishop Kieran Thomas Conry, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, said that services for people dealing with addictions or homelessness should focus on those needs not the other concerns of the service providers.

He was responding to a question about whether service workers handing out Bibles to clients would constitute proselytism and an inappropriate attempt to push religion at people, and he said he thought it would.

In recent years there has been ecumenical agreement among the mainstream churches that proselytism, understood as manipulative communication, is unacceptable and a violation of religious and human freedom.

Agreeing broadly with former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who said that secularism was not "aggressive" but meant freedom for all in the public square, rather than advantage for a few, Bishop Conry also declared that while politicians should be honest about the beliefs that shape them, an appeal to narrow confessionalism was not what voters wanted or needed.

For his part, Dr Harris, a long standing proponent of secularism, said that there would be "no problem" with religious groups being involved in delivering services, provided that they clearly adhered to basic principles of professional conduct, equality for all and non-proselytism.

However, critics of the attitude of some faith groups and religious leaders say that this is precisely the problem, with gay people - both believers and non-believers - being among those likely to find themselves discriminated against by faith-based providers.

Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet, a minister without portfolio and chair of the Conservative Party, said in her speech to Anglican bishops earlier this week that the Coalition would "defend people of faith". She claimed that the previous government had failed to "create policies to unleash the positive power of faith in our society" because of anti-religious prejudices.

The claim has been strongly contested both by secular groups and by members of the Christian Socialist Movement, albeit with differing estimations.

The core idea put forward by Tory peer Warsi over the past few days has been that churches and religious groups should be given more influence and control over public services.

Challenged on 'Newsnight' as to whether they should be allowed to discriminate in employment and provision on the basis of religious convictions, Baroness Warsi declined to answer the question but said that she "strongly believed in equality" and did not think that there was a clash between the principles of equality and religious conviction.

However, the Baroness had previously opposed designated protection for non-religious people in the Equality Bill, Dr Harris pointed out.

With two-thirds of British charities being secular, Baroness Warsi was also challenged on her claim that 2006 research showed that religiously motivated people were more likely to be volunteers and charity donors.

Pepper Harow, campaigns officer for the British Humanist Association, said yesterday that "it is very worrying that a Government Minister feels that the previous Government did not support faith when the reality is that their policies privileged religious people and groups."

"They increased the number of faith schools, gave millions of pounds in grant funding to religious organisations, appointed faith advisors and gave religious organisations greater exemptions from UK non-discrimination laws than European law allows," she said.

"If this Government wants to go even further, that is a cause for serious concern," said Ms Harow. "It is also untrue that non-religious people do less for charity; various studies and surveys have confirmed this and is insulting to hard-working secular charities and voluntary groups (which make up two thirds of the voluntary sector) to suggest otherwise.

"We will be writing to the Minister to make these points and remind her that at least 43 per cent of the UK population consider themselves non-religious.

"If the Government truly wants to create a successful 'Big Society,' excluding non-religious people is not the way to go about it," she declared.

Earlier in the programme, Tim Montogomerie of ConservativeHome told the BBC that he and other would not be too worried about beliefs of faith groups they disagreed with if their involvement in service delivery saved taxpayers' significant amounts of money.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "In the head-rush of 'big society' rhetoric, church groups are in danger of being flattered into a position where they may be used to paper over serious cracks in public service provision. Policy confusion, budget panic, reckless out-sourcing, economic inequality, social anxiety and the cuts agenda are major features of the present landscape which should not remain unquestioned by faith and voluntary groups. Nor should equality of provision and fair treatment be relegated to secondary or dispensable matters, by them or by government."

He continued: "If communities are to be mobilised for social change, they need to be properly resourced and equipped, and they need to operate in ways that bring people together rather than pull them apart on religious or any other grounds. There are serious ethical and political issues here. Churches should be encouraged to approach these questions with theological and moral wisdom based on priority concern for social justice and the needs of the most vulnerable, not self-preservation or institutional self-interest. Some serious rethinking of vision, priorities and responsibilities for government, civic and faith groups is going to be required. A 'big society' that remains unjust and unequal is no society at all, in reality."

[Ekk/3]

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