David Cameron's warm words about co-opting churches into plugging the gaps in social provision resulting from his administration's antipathy to the state and the services it provides, have recently taken something of a knock from his own MPs in East Anglia.
At the end of September 2010, the Ipswich and Diss Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) wrote to the nine Conservative MPs representing the constituencies which make up its administrative area. (An area Meeting can be considered as roughly equivalent to a diocese).
The letter laid out the Area Meeting's concerns over the effect of spending cuts on the most disadvantaged in society. The detailed and carefully worded text was, in the manner of Friends, arrived at by means of patient attentiveness, silent reflection and respectful discussion until the mind of the Meeting was eventually discerned. These things are not done hastily or lightly amongst Quakers.
As of 17 January, only four replies had been received from the MPs concerned. One was a three line email ignoring all the issues raised and offering nothing more than criticism of the previous government for “mismanagement of Britain's finances”.
Two of the remaining three letters were almost identical in wording and were evidently generic responses provided by government communication officers. They chose to address only one of the diverse concerns which had been laid before them.
The writer of the fourth letter had made some effort to read, understand and respond to the matters raised, even though this MP seemed, quite unaccountably, to believe that the Clerk of the Area Meeting was concerned about the effect the cuts might have on her personally.
Quakers have always been known for their social concern and action. They are careful, when acting as a corporate body, to display no political partisanship. The failures to respond, the shallow nature of two of the responses and the contempt displayed by the party political broadcast-style email, would seem not to have recognised this and do not reflect well on an administration which is eager to recruit faith groups to its cause.
The Friends of this wide-spread rural Area Meeting acted in accordance with their prophetic calling – speaking truth to power and standing with the poor, vulnerable and marginalised.
The response has blown a hole right through Cameron's Big Society rhetoric and its associated claim that “we are all in this together”. It would seem that religious bodies are only considered of interest to the Coalition when they are willing to be uncritical participants in the social and economic order which it wishes to impose.