Row breaks out over report to Church on its welfare role

By staff writers
8 Jun 2008

A report looking at the role of the Church of England and other faith communities in welfare has been spun into an attack on government before it has even been published and properly digested, say the researchers involved in producing it.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme this morning, co-author Francis Davis from the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge, which was commissioned by the Church of England’s urban affairs bishop, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, but produced its work independently, urged people to “carefully read and study the report” when it is published tomorrow rather than “quoting selectively from it.”

Another of the report’s academic authors, Dr Andrew Bradstock, is also deeply unhappy about the way that a lengthy and detailed document, embargoed until 9 June, has been spun by journalists into an attack on government.

“The purpose of this document is to resource an ongoing conversation, not to leap to conclusions or start apportioning general blame”, Dr Bradstock told Ekklesia this morning.

He points out that while the research indicates that some government departments have a sketchy view and little hard data on the church’s grassroots voluntary work, it is not suggesting a lack of moral purpose in any quarter - though it is raising tough questions and the need for action to address the shortcoming of the current situation.

The report's aim “is to look at how debates and decisions about the issue of faith communities in relation to service provision can be strengthened on all sides”, he said.

Advocating "a principled approach to public service reform grounded in gift, covenant, advocacy and justice", the authors cal for"a richer appreciation of the 'civic value' added to the life, identity and health of the nation by Christian institutions in partnership with the whole realm of civil society." But it warns that "[t]he Church too must adapt to the changing times, overcoming its (mistaken) perception that it is well understood by society."

The report's authors say that "when it comes to faith communities in general, and aspects of charity law and social policy in particular, the government is planning blind and failing parts of civil society."

However the church is also lacking in adequate information admits Bishop Lowe in his foreword.

The issue of whether and how faith groups should be involved in government service delivery is a controversial one, with clashes over equalities and employment policies being highlighted in the Catholic adoption agencies row recently, and in a discrimination case involving a Christian agency in Wales.

The Von Hugel report, ‘Moral, but no compass’, specifically sets out to address the information deficit that it discovered in wide-ranging interviews as part of the process of compiling the document. As such, it is a wake-up call to all involved.

It also says that a clear distinction needs to be made between the actual and potential role of faith groups in public life generally, and the government’s distinct agenda of tackling the radicalisation of Muslim youth – making sure that the two are not confused.

Mr Davis said on the ‘Sunday’ programme that the report was not suggesting a “Minister of Religion” in isolation, but a minister attached to the Cabinet Office, where policy across government is coordinated, to look at religious communities in relation to overall policy on social cohesion and voluntary action.

Reports in the Times and Telegraph newspapers yesterday, which have been widely picked up, have wrongly described the document as a “Church of England report” and have said it represents a complaint of marginalisation by the Church in discussions about the involvement of the third sector (voluntary organisations) in welfare provision.

But speaking to the BBC, Bishop Lowe said that the Church had not pronounced and could not respond in detail to the report’s findings and recommendations, because it has not seen it yet.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York will be issuing a statement at the London press conference where the full report will be unveiled tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, communities minister Hazel Blears, who admitted she had not had a chance to read the report herself, told the BBC that the government had a clear moral vision and purpose, and was seeking the widest range of partnerships in service delivery.

She said that the best balance was to “live in a secular democracy where we also respect [the role of] religion”. But she questioned Conservative policy on welfare, accusing it of wanting to remove government support and replace it with purely private or voluntary initiative.

Simon Barrow co-director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, one of the bodies the report’s researchers spoke to, said: “We believe a more careful, calm and critical evaluation is needed of the role of faith groups in public service provision.”

He continued: “It is particularly important that the needs of the vulnerable and the reasonable expectation of all people (whether religious or non-religious) for equal treatment from public services should not be subsumed too readily in a ‘contracting-out’ culture that can put the interests of providers – government, voluntary and private agencies – ahead of those they are supposed to be helping.”

“More research and thought is badly needed, but a confused ‘debate’ fuelled by sensational headlines and half-truths will not help anybody.”

Ekklesia has been critical of faith schools selecting pupils and staff on the basis of belief, and has said that it is wrong for Christian engagement with welfare to be based on seeking special advantage or privilege for the church's own interests.

It says that the churches should beware of being sucked into running taxpayer funded services in a way that compromises their integrity and detracts from their ability to raise bigger questions about the whole system, particularly in terms of inequality and poverty.

The Von Hugel Institute at St Edmund's College in Cambridge, which produced Moral, But No Compass, is a Catholic foundation, but its academics and researchers come from a number of backgrounds.

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'Moral, But No Compass: Government, Church and the Future of Welfare' is published on 9 June 2008 by Mathew James Ltd. It has been produced by the Von Hugel Institute, St Edmunds's College, Cambridge. It was commissioned by Bishop Stephen Lowe for the consideration of the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England.

From Ekklesia: Why does the government want to court the churches? (and vice versa) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6217

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