Anglican Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu has called on the British Government to give fuller recognition to the work carried out by faith groups in the delivery of social services in England.
Speaking at Westminster Central Hall event organised by Youth for Christ, Dr Sentamu said Christian organisations were making a vital contribution in local communities and were often at the forefront of the provision of community services.
"We must resist any trend in national or local Government where the decision as to whether a solution works is not based on results but upon the intolerance that sees a project motivated by faith as being tainted and unsuitable for receipt of funding. Rather there should be a recognition of the valuable work being carried out by groups motivated to serve the common good by a belief in dignity of all as God's creatures in which his divine spark resides."
However, critics say that religious organisations are not endearing themselves to many others in society by continuing to demand opt-outs from equalities provisions and by embracing 'contract culture' too uncritically in their own interests.
The religion and society think tank Ekklesia is among those who suggest that the needs of the most vulnerable and the integrity of Christian witness are being undermined by the failure to tackle discrimination and a too-cosy and uncritical deal between government and faith groups on welfare provision.
The debate was sparked earlier in the year by the publication of a report commissioned by the Church of England called 'Moral, But No Compass', which said government and churches needed greater awareness of, and information about, each other.
Dr Sentamu said that many Christian groups "are working at the coalface of pastoral care and social practice motivated by nothing more than their love of God and the love for their neighbour. The belief of the unique worth of every individual, the belief in the sanctity of every life, the belief that each is loved and each is valued. These are the drivers and motivators which produce results."
The archbishop also warned of "a chill wind that blows around grant makers and managers of funds at the mention of faith groups as those capable of delivering social change and transformation. It is a chill wind that has been blowing through the corridors of the so called 'faith schools' in recent weeks and it is an chill wind that brings no good to the nay sayers nor to those schools which are dedicated not to creedal indoctrination as their critics would have it, but rather to serving their local communities, serving children of all faiths and none in some of the most deprived areas our country as well as in some of the more well heeled. The concept of faith schools is a recent invention; religious schools is a better term"
The reference seemed to be a coded remark about the new coalition Accord, an alliance of religious and secular voices calling for an end to policies of discrimination in faith schools and for all publicly-funded schools to be open to all. The group has not complained of indoctrination and says it campaign is not against religious foundation schools but for fairness.
The archbishop went on: "Of course there will be those who will say the Church has no role to play in service delivery and that faith has no part to play in the solution. But the facts tell a different story".
"Whether it be the 22,000 religious charities working in England and Wales today, the 540 organisations who worked alongside each other in the Make Poverty History campaign and who continue to campaign on Millennium Development goals or even just those members of the Church of England who contribute over 23 million hours of voluntary service each year."
Quoting from a report into the work of faith groups in the West Midlands, Dr Sentamu said: "Far from fitting into the stereotype of proselytising organisations which seek to bang each other over the head with their holy books, the report found that people of faith were involved not to score points or claim spiritual scalps, but simply to help those in need."
"The Church has a role to play because it is based in the community. It does not drive in to places of strife in the morning and leave before the lights go down. The Church remains as part of the community and where there is hurt, the Church shares that hurt, is part of it, and is hence uniquely placed to be part of the solution."
"As the chief executive of Tearfund, Matthew Frost, recently commented: "The local church is uniquely placed to make some of the greatest impacts on the lives of the poor. It is right in the heart of their communities and knows those most in need."
Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, said that while the Archbishop of York "is quite right to highlight the important work done by churches and faith groups in community regeneration", his remarks "pay insufficient attention to problems of access and discrimination, and to distinctions between statutory and voluntary provision. They also wrongly suggest that all questions and criticisms put to the church over its zeal to embrace contract culture and secure its position as a service provider are simply motivated by anti-religious sentiment. This is a misleading and disappointing response."
He added: "Church leaders need to be seeking honest dialogue on welfare and their role. A culture of self-congratulation and defensiveness is not one which benefits churches, those of all faiths and none working at 'the coal face', people concerned about the needs of the most vulnerable, and those who have to take decisions about how social provision is best structured to ensure fairness and quality."