Communities minister fuels debate about churches and public service provision

By staff writers
3 Nov 2007

The church and other faith groups have a vital role to play in bringing about positive transformation to communities across the UK and cannot be ignored, according to the government minister responsible for the communities agenda.

But critics say many important questions remain to be fully explored about the agendas of both parties and the overall shape of what is being created in social and educational policy.

Speaking at a Faithworks Conference on Friday 2 November 2007, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears outlined a clear commitment on behalf of the government to include and value faith groups in tackling the problems communities face.

She explained that despite some mutual mistrust, the last ten years had brought a new maturity to the relationship between government and faith groups.

This is a settlement which has alarmed some secular groups, and raised tough theological and practical questions within faith communities about what the Christian think-tank Ekklesia has critically termed "the new deal" between the two.

Ekklesia argues that there are dangers for both churches and government in too cosy an accommodation between the two on service provision - namely, the loss of a radical, prophetic edge in Christian practice; a dilution of equalities and the elevation of some providers over others; and the propping up of a paternalistic status quo.

But Ms Blears saw a positive future. She declared: “In the past faith groups have found doors closed: little recognition of their role, little willingness to debate it. And it was a real missed opportunity that we chose not to make more of their enthusiasm and expertise.”

The minister continued: “There were concerns, such as whether faith groups could deliver services unconditionally to people who held different views to their own. These were legitimate questions, but they have not gone unanswered, and we now have a more mature understanding of the contribution that faith communities can make. It’s never been clearer that faith groups must be part of the response to the problems we face."

However critics say that the implications of the stance of the Catholic and Anglican churches on adoption and the widespread religious opposition to gay rights among religious groups is not being properly acknowledged by government, which is over eager to fill gaps in public provision by voluntary and private means.

They point to exemptions on equal opportunities practice in admissions and employment with regard to faith schools.

However the minister felt progress was being made: “As government attitude has developed, so has that of faith groups. We have seen faith groups accept and show how they can live up to that: a promise not to use public funds to proselytise, a promise to serve those with whom you may fundamentally disagree.”

Ms Blears said the Faithworks Charter, a framework of rights and responsibilities for Christian groups involved in delivering services, demonstrated this commitment to unconditional service.

Faithworks, unlike many other church organisations, has signed up to the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs), which ensure fair treatment for lesbian and gay people in public services. But this in itself raises question, critics will say, about whether most faith groups really have signed up to the full equalities agenda.

The minister sought to allay these fears by promising that the government will be developing a model for the relationship along similar lines in the future.

She said: “The Faithworks Charter is an excellent example of how the big questions can be answered. We want government to deliver something similar, and for that to come to life in how people serve and respond to those they serve. If you can achieve that, it will give strong reassurance to government at all levels that faith groups can and should be a partner in a whole range of things they do."

“Ten years ago it would have been unusual to see a government minister at an event like this... just think where we could be ten years from now,” said Ms Blears

She also celebrated and paid tribute to the work being done by churches on the ground in local communities: “I’ve visited churches that have been the first to step in and provide practical support to neighbourhoods facing huge and complex social challenges – from poverty, to alcohol, to guns and gangs... Faith is what drives them. People go the extra mile and get strength from their faith. It’s that commitment and belief in what you’re doing that means you’re still there at the end of the day when you probably should have gone home. If we don’t harness that energy, we’re all missing out.”

Elsewhere in the Faithworks Conference, Minister for Competitiveness Stephen Timms MP, who is a member of the Christian Socialist Movement, congratulated Faithworks members on their commitment to localism and activism, and called on churches to remain committed to their faith and to the poor.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones challenged the church on its commitment to the poor, declaring: “Church without the poor is not an authentic church.”

Dr Patrick Dixon, a leading futurist, said there was a pressing need for businesses and the church to learn lessons from each other. Meanwhile, Shane Claiborne, founder of the Simple Way Community in Philadelphia, USA, shared his experiences of living simply in a consumerist world.

The Rev Steve Chalke, founder of Faithworks, called for a new kind of church leadership for the post-Christendom age, and said that this should involve new models and patterns of leadership.

Ekklesia has suggested that the main opportunity of post-Christendom is for the churches to recognise that privilege from, and accommodation to, governing authority compromises a more critical contribution alongside those at the margins of society in line with the Gospel's radicalism.

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