Jonathan Bartley

Service provision: Why does government want to court the churches?

By Jonathan Bartley
November 13, 2007

As the direct, historic Christendom alliance of church and governance has weakened dramatically in recent years, so the relationship between church and state in a country like Britain has changed. It has moved toward accommodation to a set of mutually reinforcing interests which reflect crises in both faith communities and in the national political and economic order.

The basic concerns of political leaders (to legitimate their rule, create a stable order and find ways of delivering their policy goals) have remained consistent, of course. But their realisation has waned in the face of seemingly uncontrollable economic and social forces. In this context a certain ‘multi-faith establishment’ has emerged. Partnerships between faith groups and government at local, regional and national level have developed. The features of this 'new deal' include strategic partnerships – promoted by government guidance, seek to involve religious groups in public service provision and civic functions.

But this 'new deal' between churches, in particular, and government may in fact go much further and wider in the future. It is best examined by first looking at some of the respective difficulties church and state face.

The problems that government faces

• Authority: At successive general elections fewer and fewer people have turned out to vote. Just one in five voters elected the Government at the 2005 general election. In a system where governments depend upon the authority of a democratic mandate to drive through political programmes, this is interpreted as a crisis in authority and a threat to the legitimacy of the system itself.

• Funding: Since the Thatcher era governments in Britain have pursued an agenda of seeking to take money out of the public sector and transfer it to the private sector, with the voluntary sector an civic (including faith) groups squeezed in the middle and pushed towards becoming more commercial and oriented towards 'filling the gaps' public authorities are being asked to vacate.

• Morality: The ‘Back to Basics’ scandals of the 1990s and allegations of sleaze have contributed to a negative view of politics and politicians. Accentuated by declining voter turnouts, governments are looking beyond democratic mandates for moral authority to govern. ‘Values’ are increasingly appealed to for political legitimacy. Actions as diverse as the invasion of Iraq, an end to tobacco advertising tax changes and welfare reforms have been justified by political leaders as “the right thing to do”.

• Creativity: In 1962 Daniel Bell famously heralded the “end of ideology”. As the old conflict between capitalism and communism subsided from mainstream political debate, a new consensus on many issues emerged. Political parties are struggling to find ‘clear blue water’. Politics appears to be characterised by a muddling through – often described as a pragmatism or a managerialism.

• Diversity: Within the UK, diversity in religious and cultural values appears to be presenting significant difficulties. A major problem for government is how to foster or create social cohesion whilst respecting diversity. With the end of Soviet Communism, and a lifting of a heavy ideological blanket, there has been a return of traditional ethnic and religiously justified political conflicts in the many regions of the former socialist states and elsewhere. Migration has been implicated with difficulties over cohesion in the UK. Calls for more faith-based schools have led to arguments about ‘segregation’. Religious communities have met offence over publications, broadcasts and plays with calls for protection or control. ‘Multiculturalism’ and identity politics have been both advocated and questioned. Community and local faith leaders have been boosted, then challenged - but no alternative participative structures or figureheads have emerged.

• Delivery: Government is facing significant difficulties about how to deliver welfare, security and health care. An ageing population threatens a crisis in pensions and the NHS. The prison population continues to grow. So does the welfare bill. In an age where the use of the private sector and voluntary agencies is a la mode, government is looking for partners who will deliver effectively on its policy goals.

The problems that the church faces

• Liquidity: While churches are keen to pursue social programmes, they have less and less of their own money to do so. Many denominations are facing issues of viability. Churches need resources for their social projects and ageing infrastructure.

• Vulnerability: Many in the churches feel vulnerable. Some feel discriminated against, others even persecuted, but also unsure that they can do anything to change it. Old assumptions are being challenged. Churches no longer feel quite so at home in the world of post-Christendom.

• Authority: Christians feel their influence on society is waning. They don’t have the same privileges and power, though they are trying hard to cling on. They don’t have the same weight of numbers. Moral authority appears to have diminished. They see injustice and want to be a force for good, but are not sure if they can do much about it.

• Credibility: Rows about homosexuality and women bishops, and stories of child abuse are the kinds of things that tend to hit the headlines. Churches are seen by many as reactionary, behind the times, and outdated. Post-Christendom means that increasingly the churches' ideas and perspectives must stand up and be communicated in a society where the 'natural authority' of religious leaders is not only diminsihing but actively despised.

• Identity: The church is struggling to make a distinctive contribution to society. Often lumped together with others in the catch-all category of “religion”, “the voluntary sector” or "faith-based welfare” it has lost its unique place and status in the way things are done and managed.

Many more examples could be given. In the face of such problems, both church and state have been recognising what they can do for each other outside the traditional sphere of governance and the orbit of Establishment. It is their mutual dependence based on different but overlapping needs that explains the eagerness of both parties to engage, not conspiracy theories involving a few ministers or civil servants of 'a certain persuasion'. Secular ideology alone cannot adequately grasp what s going on because it has no theory about the demise of Christendom as a problem for the state as well as the churches, and because it does not distinguish between different religious interests.

A crucial factor in understanding why government is so keen to work closely with churches, is its belief that it can deliver in the realm of ‘social capital’. Social capital has been defined as the networks, norms, relationships, values and informal sanctions that shape the quantity and co-operative quality of a society's interactions. Social capital, it is suggested, may contribute to a range of economic and social benefits including increased GDP, more efficient functioning of labour markets, higher educational attainment, lower levels of crime, better health and more effective institutions of government.

Whereas physical capital refers to material objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. Social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” It is seen as most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations, such as the church provides. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The social capital concern has been reinforced by the 'cohesion' agenda in recent years. In the face of social and cultural fragmentation, government is keen to bring everyone on board. It is doing this through extending equalities on the one hand, but also through extending stakeholding, the promotion of 'choice', marketisation, and attempts to create an overarching identity ('Britishness' and 'shared values') in which multiple actual identities can be located. This, it believes, will create coherence for a sustainable diversity.

Benefits for the church

It is easy to see why the arrangements of the 'new deal' - including the expansion of faith schools, involvement in various kinds of service and welfare delivery, and a stake in running institutions like prisons - suit many in the churches, as well as relieving government of responsibility and building social capital. The churches benefit because cooperation with the statutory authorities is a way of:

- Delivering funding. Through its partnership with the state and private sector partners, and with agreement to deliver on the government’s policy goals and objectives, the church gets access to much needed resources, directly and indirectly.

- Delivering protection. In the face of perceived discrimination and vulnerabilities the church has the opportunity to ensure more equal treatment, ensure the continuance of old privileges, and protect itself under the law.

- Delivering Influence. Government appears to be talking in a language that is familiar to churches. It appears to be listening to what churches have to say, and responding to their concerns.

- Delivery Credibility. The receipt of government funding enhances the church’s credibility. It is able to demonstrate too that its faith “works”. It is seen as a way of witnessing to wider society that Christianity is important, at a time when it is being ridiculed in many quarters.

- Delivering Identity. The church is able to develop its identity as a welfare provider where its faith seems to have practical applications, and means something to the world around it.

The relationship between church and state is thus being renegotiated on the basis of shared interests. The church is often doing this on the basis of self-interest, rather than for example, the interests of the vulnerable or marginalized. Some will argue that the interests of the church are coterminus with those of the poor and vulnerable. But history shows that this is not always the case. A number of crucial questions must therefore be asked.

A question of trust

As with most new deals, the one between church and state hinges on trust. In a position of relative and increasing powerlessness the church, in particular, needs to be able to trust the government. And the government too needs people to be trusting. For the government “social capital can be measured using a range of indicators but the most commonly used measure is trust in other people.” Lack of trust means that political institutions don’t work. The major consequence of lack of trust has been identified as withdrawal, lack of participation and engagement – particularly in the democratic system.

A number of Christian groups, like the Evangelical Alliance, have been running campaigns and initiatives to restore trust in the political system, social institutions, government and the church. These are sometimes accompanied by initiatives to restore values like ‘respect’. They sit well with the government’s emphasis on creating new community around shared values. This emphasis by the churches can be seen as an indicator of the extent to which the church is buying into a new deal with government.

But there are a number of potential risks for the church in such an approach:

- It risks betrayal. The trust that the churches are placing in government could be misplaced. They could be let down. They could be betrayed. Pressure from those who do not have such a positive view of the role of religion could be brought to bear and influence government. Governments can change. Parties can change. Policies can change. Events as yet unseen could alter things significantly. Within Christendom governments often betrayed the church (and vice versa).

- It risks perpetuating injustice. An emphasis on trust may mean failing to point to faults and injustices in government, institutions or the church. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has pointed out, institutions need to be open and accountable if they want the trust of the wider population. But equally they need to be challenged in order to bring about change. Too great an emphasis on trust could mean there is little impetus for reform of public life, higher standards for those in public office, systems of transparency and accountability.

- It risks privatisation. The focus on trust can easily become one of changing private attitudes, and an emphasis on personal ethics. Such an approach risks being relegated to the private realm, with little to say about challenging structural injustice.

- It risks a clash with Christian convictions about the powers at work in the social order. Biblical accounts of power and authority are often highly critical, calling on Christians to resist forces which legitimate violence and division. Equally often, however, Christians misread both the signs of the times and the prophetic-biblical message of justice, and end up colluding with the status quo.

Campaigns to promote trust focus on a two-way process. The trust of government and the wider world is also being encouraged in the church. But there are also questions that need to be raised about the way that trust is being justified as a method of engagement for the church. It has been suggested that the more government and others trust the churches the more they will:

• Actively seek the churches' advice,
• Be inclined to accept and act on the churches’ recommendations
• Treat the churches as they would wish to be treated,
• Respect the churches
• Give churches the benefit of the doubt
• Forgive the churches when they make mistakes
• Protect the churches when they need it
• Warn the churches of dangers that they might avoid
• Feel comfortable in relationship with the churches
• Feel comfortable with the churches
• Work to decrease the level of bureaucracy involved in their interactions with the churches
• Fund the work of the churches

A great deal is then being invested in the churches’ trust of government and support for those in power. But a great deal also hangs on the belief that Christians and churches will trust one another, and this is risky, too, at a time when the churches appear quite divided. Over issues of funding particularly, several reports have highlighted the lack of trust between Christian groups working in the field of social action.

One of the consistent justifications for Christians promoting trust is that they can work more closely together and be more influential. Collaboration and more unity would present a clear message to statutory funders; “If all denominations, networks, streams and agencies were to approach the government with one voice and a clear strategy on issues, the it would be impossible for them to ignore what we had to say and exclude us in the future.”

But it may be that the new deal between church and government is the problem not the solution in this regard. The new deal means that faith groups, and indeed churches, are competing with one other for scarce funding from government. As successive reports show it is often the Established church that gets chosen over and above other Christian, and for that matter other faith, groups in funding matters. Either that or different religions compete with each other, and with other civic groups.

Through its communities programmes government is seeking to strengthen common projects and to fund faith groups simultaneously. But it is meeting resistance from secularists and religionists alike, who both complain that the balance is not right and that their view should prevail as the 'neutral' or 'natural' ecology of things.

On the other hand, new opportunities for the state to divide and rule the church, faith groups and civil society are opened up. As Constantine patronised the church, so disputes and rivalries broke out. In Post-Christendom churches are already divided. These divisions may grow, rather than lessen, in the face of the new deal, especially in areas such as equalities, where less progressive voices wish to hold back.

A question of distinctiveness

What is it that makes the church distinctive under the new deal? Part of the new deal between church and state is to show more effectively that faith ‘works’. Questions need to be asked as to the basis of this kind of political witness, however.

First, there has been a move toward managerialism, ideas of efficiency and pragmatism within the political system. Rather than the church witnessing to government, suggesting more human and social values and practices in line with its incarnational message, the reverse may be the case under the new deal. The church may itself move toward governing, ruling ideologies rather than pioneering a distinctive approach in the delivery of social welfare based on participation and equality.

The push of the 'new deal' is towards delivery (measured in targets and statistics), motivational capacity, professonalisation and public work understood as provision rather than empowerment. It is a functionalist agenda wrapped in soothing words about 'community benefit'. The question that the churches need to ask themselves is whether they want their contribution to civic life to be based upon such functionalism – rather than, for example, upon a radical stand for social justice rooted in the gospel. Taking state funding or a role on behalf of the state or corporate interests runs the risk of buying into top-down policy goals and targets rather than a vision of a different kind of social order. It runs the risk of blunting the church’s prophetic calling to question power. Politicians are quite happy to accept Christians and those of other faiths who serve their local communities diligently. They are less happy with a church that challenges the status quo.


(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted, updated and excerpted from the 2006 book, Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster Press), chapter 8. Additional editing and research on this article by Simon Barrow.

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