Church and welfare debate continues as new report is published

By staff writers
June 10, 2008

The Cambridge-based Von Hugel Institute's report on church, government and social welfare is creating a lively media and political talking point following its launch in London yesterday.

But much of the debate is being conducted by people who have not read the research in full, since Moral, But No Compass is presently only available as a book - though Ekklesia understands there are now discussions about an online edition.

The report, authored by three non-Anglican academics, was commissioned by the Church of England but produced, published and financed independently.

It was leaked to the Times and the Telegraph over the weekend, and portrayed as a Church document attacking the government and complaining about undue attention to Muslim groups.

The report does criticise government and the Charity Commission for lacking an adequate understanding and data base regarding the substantial role of churches in existing social welfare activities - most voluntary. But the Church is also encouraged to tackle its own internal and external misconceptions, to equip itself better in the new public policy environment, and to coordinate its work in the social arena more effectively.

The authors deny that it is an "attack" of any kind, saying that their research is "exploratory" but also strongly evidence-based and "one of the more wide-ranging enquiries into UK Church-Government relations and social welfare in recent years".

In a message transmitted to yesterday's media launch, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, called Moral, But No Compass a "fascinating and important report".

“On the one hand it highlights and details some truly remarkable examples of public good delivered by the Church and faith based organisations - sometimes funded by the state, though mostly not - and a general picture of committed social engagement which if grasped imaginatively by the state could, indeed would, yield some extraordinarily positive results,” the Archbishops declared.

“On the other it reveals a depressing level of misunderstanding of the scale and quality of contribution faith-based organisations make to the civil and civic life of our nation - our common good. This is particularly true in relation to the contribution of the Church of England, and its membership, on which the report focuses.

“In short, this report urges the Church, government and others, notably the Charity Commissioners, to sit up, take note and to better understand each others roles and intentions in order to make the most of one of this nation’s most diverse, creative and enduring assets – the Church..

“We all need to consider very seriously the report’s recommendations and take appropriate action - for the good of the nation”, they concluded.

However, secular pressure groups, which are described in the report as very small and over-represented in public debate, responded angrily to suggestions that the Church of England might be given a greater role in policy and service management or commissioning.

Both the National Secular Society (NSS) and the British Humanist Association (BHA) called for immediate disestablishment.

"Faith-based welfare has been a catastrophe in the United States and it would be in Britain", said NSS president Terry Sanderson.

He added: "The Church of England secured religious exemptions on employment legislation after public consultation had closed in a behind-the-scenes-deal with the Government. It has opposed legislation giving equality to homosexuals. Last year it demanded and received additional license to discriminate against non-religious teachers in publicly-funded faith schools. These are clear indications that it could not be trusted to deliver welfare services fairly and without prejudice.”

The BHA, which prepared its own report,'Quality and Equality', on human rights, public services and religious organisations last year, with backing from trade union and voluntary sector analysts, warned against church "special pleading".

"Even though fewer than a tenth of us worship in its churches on a weekly basis, [the Church of England] runs almost a third of England’s state-funded schools, entirely at public expense, while reserving the power to select pupils and staff on religious grounds; it exercises political power through Bishops in the House of Lords and it lobbies for and frequently achieves special treatment in myriad ways," said Andrew Copson.

Meanwhile, the lead author of Moral, But No Compass, Mr Frnacis Davis, co-director of the Von Hugel Institute at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, has vigorously defended the importance and integrity of the research and its findings in an article for the Jesuit e-journal, Thinking Faith.

"After a year’s research involving upwards of 300 interviews with parliamentarians, civil servants, voluntary sector leaders, bishops and community activists we have established that the government’s “faith-based agenda” is incoherent," he declared. "This is not a judgement on the government as a whole, but when it comes to very particular parts of social policy, the state is planning blind – moral, but with no compass."

The evidentially demonstrable scale of Church involvement in society belies the popular idea that it is dying, he says.

Referring to his interviews and research, Davis adds: "The view in parts of Whitehall seemed to be that even where religions were strong they were only grassroots-based, were likely to compete aggressively for funds and so were consequently at risk of reducing social cohesion in society."

The accusation of a "religious power struggle" is one the National Secular Society makes in its response, though without referring to the specific content of Moral, But No Compass.

However, Francis Davis retorts: "The social reality we unearthed challenges these stereotypes and makes it clear that the Church of England is this country’s largest voluntary organisation."

He continues: "[I]n dioceses we found skilled, qualified and experienced managers and administrators who could become the hubs around which a new Anglican philanthropy emerges – a civic engagement and social partnership with the state to support the needy."

Meanwhile, the Times newspaper columnist and commentator David Aaronovitch has advised the C of E to "drop its martyred tone".

"I am emphatically not saying that faith organisations are unimportant or that they don't do many good things," he explained. "But why should the Government, as the report recommends, give taxpayers' money to church organisations specifically to invest in areas such as education and art? Is it really for the benefit of the poor?"

Also on Ekklesia: 'A wonky church and welfare debate' by Simon Barrow -

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