Labour consultation with faith groups raises critical questions

By staff writers
17 Jun 2008

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has launched a new consultation and dialogue involving the Labour Party, the churches and faith communities. The move came at a reception held at No 10 Downing Street at the end of last week.

Called ‘Believing for a Better Britain’, the collaborators in the process say it is designed to enable Labour to hear the concerns of faith communities and consider how they can be reflected in the next party manifesto.

It will focus strongly on identifying the values held in common by different faith and belief traditions - ones which also echo with people who are not religious.

The process is likely to be part of an intense debate about how public services are structured, funded, shaped and delivered in the new century - given that a top-down state and a laissez faire market have both proved probematic in different ways.

According to the Christian Socialist Movement, "this consultation marks a new phase in Labour’s engagement with churches and faith movements. In 2007 Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP was appointed by the Prime Minister a Party Vice Chair with special responsibility for ‘faith’, and now a Faiths Taskforce has been set up to develop the Party’s engagement with grassroots faith communities. Chaired by Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement, this contains MPs and specialists from a variety of different faiths."

‘Believing for a Better Britain’ will be headed up by the Rev Malcolm Duncan, the Leader of the Faithworks Movement - which involves thousands of people and hundreds of church projects throughout the country.

Through his role at Faithworks, Duncan brings with him an extensive network across the UK and strong experience of facilitating conversation between people of faith and politicians, say those involved.

Launching the initiative, the Prime Minister noted that the Party was moving into "new and exciting territory" with its work on faith. "The Faith Taskforce is part of that new territory and under the chairmanship of Alun Michael it will have a vital contribution to make to the Labour Party’s plans for the future," said Mr Brown.

He added that the consultation’s independent leadership "gives the Party the opportunity to genuinely listen and enter into dialogue with people of faith and belief. A government of all the talents cannot ignore the rich resources of the Third Sector, and must not marginalise the massive contribution of faith communities across the UK."

Alun Michael also stressed the value of the consultation’s independent leadership and its focus on values. "By acknowledging the distinctiveness of faith groups in the UK and celebrating their common values, we will be able to lay the foundations for stronger partnership, better communication and increased understanding" he said.

"In chairing the Faiths Taskforce I am committed to an open dialogue with people of faith and belief. Instead of privilege and position and protectionism, Labour is seeking to understand the contribution of faith and belief to political life in the UK looking for new and innovative ways of supporting people motivated by faith and belief within the Labour Party," added Michael.

The initiative, launched at a reception that also celebrated winners of a recent award from Faithworks for community action, comes days after a report, Moral, But No Compass, written by staff at the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge, and commissioned by the Church of England, said that government departments and agencies were operating without proper data or understanding on the huge range of church involvement in social provision.

Critics will accuse the government of cosying up to faith groups at a time when instititutional religion is in decline, of moving towards "faith based welfare" when it has proved so problematic in the USA, and of extending privileges for Christians to other religious groups rather than ending them.

The National Secular Society has already poured scorn on the process of further consultation with faith groups. Its 'What the papers say' service recently responded to a British newspaper article article by US Christian activist Jim Wallis, calling for an end to sectarian religious politics and collaboration between people of good will, with the headline description: "Religion is no longer the monopoly of the Right in USA, now it poisons all politics."

At the Number 10 reception, however, the Malcolm Duncan made it clear that Faithworks will remain independent of any one political party and part of a wide-ranging conversation. The Movement recently has been in dialogue with secular critics and Ekklesia has been told that this has proved "constructive and positive on both sides"

Duncan also handed over to the Prime Minister a charter which calls on all Christian groups involved in public welfare to uphold equal treatment and disavow discrimination and proselytism.

But there is considerable concern among many involved in the social sector, both religious and non-religious, that faith groups have been granted exemptions on equalities and employment legislation, allowing them to favour their own or select in provision.

A November 2007 report on Quality and Equality produced by the British Humanist Association in cooperation with TUC and voluntary sector personnel, demonstrated that many faith-based social providers were still discriminatory in practice.

The government recently resisted moves by the Catholic Church to discriminate against gay couples in its adoption services, and as a result some agencies supported by the church are being handed over to broader ownership or closed. But lobbying by some church leaders against full equality for gay people remains intense.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, who attended the reception, says that the issue of eliminating discrimination, whether by faith groups or others, is a matter of trust, integrity and fairness.

"Particular churches, faith organisations, businesses, charities and other private providers - whether religious or not - should not be given unaccountable dominance over large chunks of public services paid for by the general taxpayer," he said. "That would be an unhealthy state of affairs for all involved."

"Partnership between the state, voluntary groups and other actors in welfare provision needs to be genuine, transparent and rooted in the overwhelming needs of the vulnerable, a comprehensive equalities agenda, an end to unfair exemptions, and a more careful review of the way the 'commissioning state' really works and what it can and cannot deliver," he added.

Ekklesia has urged churches to be "exemplary" when they are in receipt of public funds, rather than seeking opt-outs or special preferences. "Welfare means ensuring that all people - non-religious and religious - are treated fairly, humanly, without regard for creed, wealth or status, and in a way that acknowledges them as full participants not mere 'clients' or 'recipients' in services and projects."

The think-tank says that church involvement in what is becoming a 'mixed economy' welfare system should not be at the expense of social justice and a more radical, critical role in society.

Barrow commented: "The Christian Gospel is not primarily about patching up victims but ending victimisation. Likewise, the church is not primarily about being a service agency but modelling the kind of personal and social transformation that heralds the practical possibility of a different kind of living - where equality, justice, peace, hospitality and forgiveness are foundational virtues rather than exotic dreams."

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