Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has said that faith groups using public money should not ‘proselytise’ or discriminate in the provision of services to their communities.
She said that churches were ideally placed to help people through the current economic crisis.
But she also challenged the exemptions that many Christians have lobbied for, to enable then to legally discriminate on the basis of religious belief.
Speaking to leading church debt experts at the Evangelical Alliance’s Life Beyond Debt conference, Hazel said religious charities deserve to be recognised for their “astonishing work.”
She said: “By making a commitment to offer the practical advice about family budgeting and debt management, the churches and groups here today can make a great difference to their neighbourhoods.”
She added that the government was working towards a charter of excellence.
“This charter would mean faith groups, who are paid public money to provide services, promising to provide those services to everyone, regardless of their background.
“And promising not to use public money to proselytise.”
She added that there is a balance to be struck: “It’s not about trying to stop the people manning the soup kitchens, or making home visits, talking about their faith if people ask, or being open about what motivates them.”
When questioned about this, she said she wanted to enter a dialogue with churches over this issue.
“I don’t want to get to the place where the very thing that motivates you is stripped away. That’s self defeating,” she said.
Christian groups in receipt of public money routinely discriminate in their employment, by advertising posts which only Christians can apply for. Church schools, almost entirely funded by the taxpayer also give priority in admissions to church children before others in their communities.
Christian lobby groups also tried to win exemptions for Christian charities which would allow them to withhold goods and services from people whose lifestyles they didn’t agree with, such as gay and lesbian people. Catholic adoption agencies in receipt of public money said they would have to close if they had to consider gay and lesbian people as potential parents.
But director of Public Policy Dr R David Muir said that faith groups provided to people regardless of their background.
“The government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.
“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.
“But we are glad that the government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”
The conference, at The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters in London, brought together 60 church leaders and anti-debt campaigners.
During the day, the Evangelical Alliance, together with a range of its member organisations, launched a campaign to encourage local churches to offer practical pastoral support to congregations and local communities and to challenge Christian attitudes to wealth and possessions.
It also launched a new website, www.lifebeyonddebt.org, to encourage and resource churches to make a difference in their communities.
Matt Barlow, Chief Executive of Christians Against Poverty, said that people suffering debt felt “powerless and hopeless” to change their situation. But he said the power lay within the national network of churches to help people face the emotional and practical problems of indebtedness.
“We, the local church, can ensure that peoples’ emotional needs and their practical needs are helped, more than probably any other group in society,” he said.