There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of faith from coalition politicians recently. Where Labour famously refused to ‘do God’, at least in speaking about it, the prime minister has been happy to extol the virtues of the King James Bible, and Michael Gove proposing that a copy should be sent to every school.
David Cameron went so far as to explicitly contrast himself with the previous government:
“People often say politicians shouldn’t ‘do God’, in fact, politicians should recognise both what our faith communities bring to our country… And also how incredibly important faith is to many people in Britain.”
Is this a new dawn then, a movement from the darkness of a out-of touch government who refused to recognise the important of religion, to the light of a faith-friendly leadership?
Yes and no. New research, being presented at the first of a series of debates organised by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, former MP Charles Clarke and Theos, suggests the picture is more complex.
The research, carried out by Dr Therese O’Toole, firstly reassessed the record of New Labour in dealing with religion. Although the party was rather reticent in speaking about religion, it seems that there was significant progress made behind the scenes.
Although the 2001 Cantle Report on the ‘northern town riots’ treated religion as a problem for social cohesion, leading to communities leading ‘parallel lives’ by a few years later the Labour government was highlighting the role of faith leaders in fostering good community relations.
They saw faith groups, and interfaith groups especially, as possessing the ability to generate ‘bridging social capital’. In other words, religion might have been part of the problem, but it was also seen as being part of the solution.
O’Toole went on to look at the key project from the coalition in this area: Near Neighbours. The project reveals a subtle change in approach to faith groups: it releases £5 million of funding to four areas in England , with the aim of promoting interactions across faith and non-faith groups. Launched last year, it offers small grants of between £250 and £5,000 to local groups for projects that bring people of different faiths together.
It’s a ‘Big Society’ initiative, which hopes to enable local communities and faith groups in particular, to create their own local solutions to social problems. But what is particularly novel is that the programme is administered by the Church of England, and applicants require the counter-signature of vicars from the parishes in which the projects would take place.
This coalition initiative places the Church of England in a new role, as broker and arbiter of local interfaith activity – which raises a series of questions. Does the Church of England have the capacity for the job? Does Anglicanism still have the central place in the religious landscape of the UK as it once did? And perhaps most pressingly, will religious minorities be able to access the funding if they don’t understand or connect with the parish structure of the Church of England? Early signs are that almost all East London funding so far has been channelled to Christian organisations.
Those positive about Near Neighbours argue that the richness of the Church of England’s infrastructure, as well as its history of interfaith work, are valuable resources which will make this programme work. Some non-Christians share this positive view. As one Muslim told the researchers, Near Neighbours might “achieve the results that the Prevent agenda wanted to achieve”, at the same time as providing minorities protection under the wing of the Church of England. Others point out that Near Neighbours’ emphasis on funding interfaith activities is a necessary corrective to the mono-faith, Muslim-focused basis of Prevent funding.
Different members of the coalition government – Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi alongside Cameron and Gove – feel free to speak confidently about the positive role of religion in society, with a particular emphasis on the UK’s historical Christianity. But it remains to be seen whether the Church of England really provides a core, but not co-opted, public role, whilst not excluding those from minority faiths. Near Neighbours provides one test of how the coalition will navigate our diverse, multi-faith landscape. It’s too soon to say if the new approach will prove more successful than the old.
The clearest trend from the research is that all parties are getting better at dealing with faith, acknowledging it’s growing centrality to a range of policy areas. Perhaps, then, in the next 10 years, the question will be not if a government ‘does’ God, but how?
This is reblogged from Elizabeth Hunter THEOS
- Cameron’s Call to Faith? How to play the Moral High Ground card. (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- You: Church of England votes to increase marriage and funeral fees (guardian.co.uk)
- End of the hairy lefties? (newstatesman.com)
- Should the Church of England allow female bishops? | Rosie Harper and Adrian Furse (guardian.co.uk)
- God is more than a vote winner (thejc.com)