The Charity Commission, the independent British charity regulator, and researchers at the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge, have disagreed over the findings of a new report commissioned by the Church of England on the role of faith in social welfare.
Writing in The Times newspaper on 14 June 2008, Charity Commission Chair Dame Suzi Leather says that critical comments about the Commission being out of touch and lacking data "do not represent our role or position." But the authors of Moral, But No Compass say that she "protests too much" and that the facts back their case.
Dame Suzi writes: "The report claims we underestimate and thereby selectively disadvantage other Christian charities. It bases this claim in part on a complete misconception about how we categorise registered charities, and in part on the fact that many Christian charities are currently exempted from registration — a privilege accorded to the established Church which allows many churches to enjoy the benefits of charitable status without the requirement to register. With the Charities Act this exemption will end and about 4,000 charities will join the register next year."
She continues in her letter: "The same legislation brings in the requirement for all charities, including those advancing religion, to demonstrate that they are established for the public benefit — a fundamental condition of charitable status. If the report’s authors really want equal treatment for Anglican charities, this requirement creates exactly that. I hope that they will encourage Anglican churches to use the opportunity to articulate publicly the contribution they make to society. Christian charities should seize this opportunity, not hide from it."
But in a response issued on 18 June 2008, the researchers from the Cambridge-based academic institute on religion and public life say: "We admire the work of the Charity Commission, but judge that it protests too strongly in saying that our report, Moral, But No Compass, misstates the Commission's policy on the quantification and nature of Christian charity. We also express reservations about the Commission's new draft guidance on religion and public benefit."
Francis Davis, Elizabeth Paulhus and Andrew Bradstock continue: "Since our report's publication, the Commission has accepted that it has been unable so far to establish the full extent of Christian charitable activity, despite new work that it now says was undertaken just before we verified our findings with the Commission and others. This confirms our fundamental thesis that present classification criteria fail to capture the full story with regard to faith based charitable activity."
They continue: "[W]hile the Commission describes this as an 'historical question' - as though Christian charity and volunteering is a legacy of the past - we suggest it equally reveals a modern lack of literacy across the whole of government regarding mainstream Christian institutions and principles, as well as those of other faiths."
The academics say: "We are clear that the wider underestimation of the size of the faith based voluntary sector as a whole, and the Christian sector in particular, is also a function of shortcomings in data gathering by the state and the third sector. The Cabinet Office has rightly said it will invest in a new Centre to address these general weaknesses and has observed that it believes the Office for National Statistics serves the sector inadequately.
"Furthermore, the Commission takes our comments out of context, omitting to mention: That the Carnegie Enquiry into the Voluntary Sector made similar observations last year and noted that more research was likely to be needed; that NCVO [the National Council of Voluntary Organisations] states the number of faith groups as even fewer than the Charity Commission; that new evidence is needed in this area on the part of the Church as it responds to the new 'public benefit' agenda ushered in by the 2006 Charity Act. For a start, the 65% of dioceses in our sample who have not yet discussed 'public benefit' must do so."
The Von Hugel team conclude: "This gap in data could be addressed by asking charities in the annual return whether they consider themselves to be faith based or faith influenced. This would help to enhance information about the number of faith based agencies in the wider field of civic endeavour."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, commented: "There appears to be justification on both sides here, and evidence of the need for a fuller debate and further thinking. The Von Hugel report is, in my experience, correct to talk about a data gap and lack of understanding in some government departments and public agencies when it comes to the role of the churches in the wider social sector.
"But we also agree with the Charity Commission that a privilege accorded to the established Church which allows many churches to enjoy the benefits of charitable status without the requirement to register and demonstrate public benefit is being ended with the Charities Act - and that all who seek a level playing field should welcome this. It is distressing to see Christians seeking or justifying special treatment and regard, when the Gospel message is about costly and sacrificial love and justice."
Regarding the Von Hugel report, one of the researchers confirmed to Ekklesia that "our respondents did not ask for special privileges for the Church. Our (Christian) respondents just wanted better recognition of their contribution for the whole community."