Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance have published a report, Faith in the Community, on the value of churches and faith groups to local communities in Great Britain. The report, which illustrates the range of local activities provided by faith groups, is based on a survey of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, to which over a third responded.
Last year, Christians in Parliament published Clearing the Ground, which argued that public institutions did not understand faith and belief. Local authorities are the public bodies with which faith groups are most likely to come into contact; and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence (which might or might not be founded in reality) of bad relationships and funding refusals. The latest survey was an attempt to get at the facts. The conclusion seems to be that there are sometimes faults on both sides:
“The survey showed that local authorities often have a poor understanding of faith groups, their beliefs and how those beliefs work themselves out in the lives of the faithful. It also found that faith groups often have an equally poor understanding of how local government works and the language that is required to engage with it”.
Overall, the response from councils about the work of faith groups was positive; however, in some cases council cutbacks had affected their capacity to engage with faith groups. Sometimes the faith groups themselves were overstretched – or in a couple of cases too focused on their internal church matters. The biggest barrier for local authorities was (hopefully false) perceptions about how faith groups might behave – concerns that they might offer services in a discriminatory manner. North Yorkshire County Council put it like this:
“There is a perceived fear (within parts of the public sector, public and media) that faith groups will seek to use public sector-funded service delivery as a means of increasing the number of followers of that faith group; and/or seek to discriminate between users of public sector-funded service delivery on the basis of the users’ faith or adherence to the beliefs or practices of the faith group, in particular beliefs that are or might appear to be contrary to equality legislation. There is a perceived fear (within faith groups) that local authorities won’t work with and/or don’t value faith groups.”
North Yorkshire concluded that “Generally, all of these perceptions are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other – but they do create barriers.”
The report recommends that local authorities–
- commit to working more closely with faith groups to support and sustain local community life;
- work with leaders of faith communities to develop informal relationships;
- look for ways to enhance the capacity of faith groups to engage in local authority structures;
- simplify and improve language and processes;
- use local faith groups to contribute to training and development for staff;
- provide clear guidance to staff on provision for religion and belief;
- clarify the role and position of beliefs in the delivery and operation of activities and services;
- promote the reasonable accommodation of beliefs and faith-motivated practices as a goal;
- develop plural rather than secular modes of operation;
- share best practice between themselves;
- develop research and measurement into the local impact of spiritual capital; and
- audit faith-based activity in a standard and comparable form.
Not all of these proposals are uncontroversial. As to “reasonable accommodation” see this blog passim, particularly in relation to Ms Lillian Ladele. As to “the local impact of spiritual capital”, what the authors seem to be suggesting is that local authorities adapt and adopt a concept already in use in relation to international development – but whether there is a simple read-across from the activities of, say, CAFOD and TearFund in Africa to the deprived areas of Great Britain is probably a matter for considerable further research.
Finally, the report suggests that though the Equality Act 2010
“… profiles religion and belief as being important for local authorities, it does so in a manner which often means that religion is dealt with in a mechanistic, structural way … [R]eligious beliefs and the faith groups that are motivated by them are often engaged with local authorities either through a community and voluntary sector group or an equality and diversity group. The implication of treating faith groups solely as the latter is that it leads to a reductionist understanding of beliefs and the impact they have on their adherents. This is a particularly secularist understanding of religion”.
Possibly so: but given that all protected characteristics under the Act have to be given due consideration, perhaps local authorities have relatively little choice in the matter.