Church leaders will quiz government minister on 'healthy communities'

By staff writers
27 Sep 2007

Church leaders and Christian activists are being urged to voice their commitment to being agents of change and inclusion to the Cabinet Minister responsible for the government's community agenda, at a Faithworks Conference later this year.

In an opportunity to gain the latest insights on the government’s views on the role of faith groups, the Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, will address the 1-3 November 2007 conference about what makes a healthy community and explore issues around inclusion. She will then take questions from the floor.

Other speakers include the Right Rev James Jones, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, Dr Patrick Dixon, a leading European futurist, the Rev Joel Edwards, head of the Evangelical Alliance, and Ms Fran Beckett, CEO of the Church Urban Fund.

The session is a late addition to the conference programme, in response to perceived rising levels of gang culture and community breakdown. It also follows the Cabinet’s Third Sector Review, in which the government praised churches and faith groups as “agents of change,” in community development, and pledged to work more closely with them.

In publicising the conference, Faithworks welcomed PM Gordon Brown's use of the biblical language of inclusion and non-discrimination to outline clear commitments to a fairer society. "This is what Faithworks has always stood for", a spokesperson said.

Secularist groups have expressed growing anxiety and anger about the government's willingness to work with faith groups, who they accuse of perpetuating division and privilege, and of representing a shrinking constituency.

But Faithworks says that it is signed up to an inclusion and diversity agenda and argues that there are many positive models of service provision and engagement by religiously-based groups, as well as some negative ones.

The UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has questioned key aspects of the recent 'new deal' between government and faith communities, arguing that there is a danger of collusion on both sides and that the primary vocation of churches should be to work with those at the margins rather than to seek power themselves.

It advocates new models of Christian political engement and distinguishes between faith involvement in the civic arena and incorporation into statutory provision and governance - which it says echoes the passing Christendom era.

However, the leader of the Faithworks Movement, the Rev Malcolm Duncan, says that in the face of the government’s clear recognition of the role played by faith groups, it was vital for the church to play its part in engaging with the policy makers.

He declared today: “The church has a huge role to play in engaging with the disaffected and marginalized, and we already have a huge network of bases across every community in this country, meaning we can reach places and people that many statutory agencies can’t."

Duncan continued: “We welcome the commitments to inclusion and diversity laid out by Gordon Brown, as well as the government’s recognition of our role in building a better world, but this also presents the church with a challenge. Many of us need to raise our game and take on new attitudes towards partnership working, putting our differences aside for the sake of the common good. But most simply we need to take the time and effort to engage with government, to make our voices heard about the issues and challenges we face, and to listen to the responses. This session with Hazel Blears is an outstanding opportunity to do this.”

The conference, entitled 'Change Agents: Sustaining Transformation', aims to help groups and individuals explore how they can be part of God’s vision for social and spiritual transformation, inspiring and equipping them to bring long-lasting, sustainable change to their local areas.

With practical training from leading agencies, input from innovators, free resources, networking opportunities, worship and a busy fringe programme, the conference takes place at London’s City Temple church. The session with Hazel Blears takes place at 9.15am on Friday 2 November 2007.

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