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published on June 7, 2008

Ignored and spurned, the Church has lost its faith – in government

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4083506.ece
Author :

[ A Minister for Religion should be appointed to restore the Church’s central place in society, demands recent report ]

The Church of England feels itself to be
marginalised, excluded and neglected. This message, gathered from every
diocese in the country, including dozens of bishops, members of
Parliament, peers and academics, is relentlessly consistent.

It comes in a landmark report, to be published next Monday, which marks the most damning critique by the Church of a serving Government since the 1980s.

While
Muslim communities are courted, funded and feted, the country’s
majority Christian communities are barely given a second thought when
it comes to Government focus on “faith”, the report says.

The report, called Moral, Without a Compass,
says the attitude of ministers is particularly galling for the Church,
which, the authors of the report say, has spent centuries pioneering
welfare provision, in particular in health, education and care for the
poor and marginalised of society.

Institutions
established by the Church and religious orders as long ago as the
Middle Ages, such as hospitals, schools and higher education colleges,
continue to offer the services they were set up to provide.

In
the last century, the Church of England played a leading role in
creating the final form of the welfare state, a phrase coined by
Archbishop William Temple in his agenda-setting book Christianity and Social Order. The Church’s continuing contribution to Britain’s welfare infrastructure remains huge and yet, the report suggests, it is now being neglected,
It sets out ways that both Church and Government can make better use of
this vast depth of experience and expertise, with an expansion of
welfare projects, such as health, adult education, working with the
poor, criminal justice, refugee services, welfare-to-work, job creation
and the rural economy. It argues that there needs to be far greater
projection of the invaluable contribution these make not only to the
Christian community, but far beyond.

It
calls for representation at the highest levels of Government, in the
form of a Minister for Religion, Social Cohesion and Voluntary Action,
and a new fund for philanthropy to back “Christian social innovation,
advocacy and welfare provision”.

One of
its key recommendations is that the Government should allocate budgets,
for example, to cathedrals and dioceses, to invest openly in local
civic initiatives, such as education and through areas such as choral
music, art and architecture.

The report says that in
terms of experience, capacity and capability, England’s 42 Anglican
cathedrals “stand head and shoulders above the Government’s new
FaithAction network, which in some instances consists of a lone
freelance consultant”.

Moral, Without a Compasscomes 22 years after the seminal Faith in the City report provoked outrage in government circles for its “Marxist” leanings. But that report changed the urban landscape in Britain, as the Church stepped in to create provision where the Government then saw no need.

Now, two decades later, it is clear that the Government sees the need, but is failing to recognise the Church’s contribution.

The report sets out the Church’s contributions in health education, criminal justice and welfare. “When the Church of England is disempowered it leads to a reduction in civic health,” it says. “We encountered on the part of the Government a significant lack of understanding, or interest in, the Church of
England
’s current or potential contribution in the public sphere.”

The authors say: “A
conscious focus on minority communities was being achieved, to the
relative exclusion of the Christian church and hundreds of other
charities.”
They contrast this with Conservative
policy. “The Conservatives’ Social Justice report is stridently
antipoverty, but what is notable is that it suggests that poverty is
being driven by a breakdown in the ‘social fabric’ of the UK. In
contrast to Labour, the Conservatives’ report argues that renewal will
come by liberating the third sector from the incessant pressure to do
the Government’s work in the Government’s way.”

In the foreword,
the Bishop of Hulme, the Right Rev Stephen Lowe, sums up the tone when
he calls for careful study of the report by all political parties.

He
writes: “The Church of England is still a major player in social and
welfare provision in this country despite what its detractors might
believe. It has earned the right as the largest voluntary organisation
(and so much more) in the country to be listened to and worked with as
a respected partner in the area of welfare provision as it is in
education. For, as the report shows, without it this country would be
infinitely poorer.”

The report goes on to describe the Government’s “significant
lack of understanding of, or interest in, the Church of England’s
current or potential contribution in the public sphere.”
The
authors were told that the Government had decided to focus its evidence
gathering “almost exclusively” on minority religions. Some of these, as
a result, even felt “victimised”.

The
authors also criticise the Charity Commission for its recent guidance
that activities that might harm the “national interest” or which
include quoting sacred texts to advance a political purpose, are no
longer to be judged as “advancing religion”.

The
report gives warning that “the current situation risks the exclusion of
the Church of England from a series of regional and national debates”,
and argues that the Government is underestimating the number of
Christian charities “by thousands”.

The authors say this
supports the view of many of those they surveyed: “This Government is
positively excluding people of faith.” It is this “discrimination”
against Christian charities in particular that they want changed.
Leading article, page 2

Chapter and verse

The report, which took evidence from 70 bishops, every diocese and more than 250 MPs, peers and academics, calls for:

—The
Government to review fundamentally the way that it approaches
contracting out services across all state departments. It suggests that
there is too much focus on the private sector, as opposed to charitable
organisations, and a need for the “decentralisation of contracts” with
greater priority given to provision from within the local community. It
calls for assessment of performance to be based less on profit and
productivity and for longer-term contracts

—Legislation
to create a “level playing-field” for faith-based agencies in the
charitable sector. They feel marginalised and excluded, especially from
funding decisions, it says.

—A new Minister for Religion, Social Cohesion and Voluntary Action, to
serve also as the Prime Minister’s “faith envoy”. The report recognises
the work done by Stephen Timms, who since last June has served as the
first Labour Party Vice-Chair for Faith Groups, but argues that faith
groups merit more than a mere party post under the new Prime Minister.
“They should have both a Vice-Chair and a Minister”

—The
British Ambassador to the Holy See and others to work with churches in
Rome and Europe to set up an international conference on UK and
Commonwealth experience of public service reform, including the work of
churches with the poor.

—Funding for training programmes on religion, governance and public policy for senior civil servants and members of the voluntary sector

—A consultation at St George’s House, Windsor, to follow up the report’s findings

—A
new Anglican Philanthropy Fund to encourage a “fresh wave of donors”
for Christian innovation, advocacy and welfare provision.

—The Archbishop of Canterbury
to establish annual awards for Faith-Based Civic Action, which would
celebrate and recognise the role and contribution of faith-based social
innovation, service and action across the country

—The Church
of England’s General Synod to set up a social enterprise body to
develop welfare service provision across the country, similar to one
set up by the Anglican Church in Australia. This body would work on and
develop further new and existing church contributions to health, social
care, community development, adult education, criminal justice, asylum,
refugee services, welfare-to-work, job creation, the rural economy and
arts and culture

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