Faith groups, social provision and the 'big society'

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Commenting on the debate occasioned by Baroness Warsi about government encouraging faith groups to take responsibility for social provision, Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said:

"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 churches or by government.

"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.

"In reality, a 'big society' that remains unjust and unequal is no society at all."