“Building strong working relationships between local authorities and religious communities should not be based on mere ‘tolerance’. It should be about talking, listening, and growing together. Together, working in unity of spirit, we are stronger than when we try to do things in isolation.”
Tolerance is not enough. That’s what Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, says in his forward to the Faith in the Community report out today. Produced by Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance it follows a survey of more than 150 local authorities detailing their relationships with faith groups.
The report finds that faith groups provide a vast quantity and range of activities and services for and with their community. They are valued partners and they are achieving results in part of the country where the formal structures of local government struggle to reach. Preston City Council commented that faith groups are “close to the ground to the communities they serve, have access to ‘hard to reach’ communities, and have a better understanding and knowledge of communities and their needs.” In (almost) the words of Heiniken, refreshes the parts others cannot reach.
The benefits cited by local authorities included the visible presence faith groups have, in the fabric of buildings and the volume of volunteers. But they also went further, they recognised that they are the ones who stand on the side of the poorest and most vulnerable. Doncaster Council summed it up brilliantly, they said: “One of the aims of most faith groups is to provide support to champion and meet the needs of vulnerable people in the local community. We are all called to serve the people. The fact is that by working together with faith groups we can do and achieve more. Faith groups often stand on the side of the hungry and poor and provide support for those who are grieving.” The faith of faith groups matter, they are not just a collection of well meaning volunteers, their beliefs motivate and sustain their action and cannot be divorced from the outcomes.
Ahead of the launch Gary Streeter, MP for Devon South West and Chair of Christians in Parliament commented in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph: “Faith groups and other community bodies are more important that ever. Especially faith groups, because they are the people who are most visibly committed to working in their communities and serving those around them. They are the people who turn up before funding begins and stay after grants are cut. They are not the state, and they are not to be co-opted by the state, but without them society would be a poorer place.”
Across Great Britain local authorities are working well with faith groups, not perfectly, but positively and seeing more and more opportunities for partnership. Money is running out for councils and the cost of adult and child social care will take up more and more of the budget until they can afford nothing else within a decade. The need for alternative, cheaper, more effective, ways of delivering services is essential and partnerships with faith groups is one way to do it.
Faith groups are already active in helping their neighbourhoods, many councils recognised the work done by food banks, debt advice centres and initiatives such as Street Pastors and Street Angels. And in some areas the responsibility has gone further, a library taken over in Warrington, post offices reopened, a church in Somerset delivering the troubled families strategy for the local council. I firmly believe this is a vital opportunity for the church to take, it is not easy and there are challenges, but when our communities are reeling from recession and unemployment the church cannot stand by and watch and wish it would solve itself.
The report outlines a number of barriers that get in the way of stronger and more fruitful partnerships. These barriers exist, they are not a figment of churches imagination, but they are not intractable. Somewhat predictably the first wave of coverage of the report yesterday focused on these. That’s okay, it’s what the media want, they want a problem to report. Ironic that on the same weekend in their sister paper they run a piece by Charles Moore lamenting the lack of good stories.
North Yorkshire County Council got it right, they reported that fears and suspicions got in the way of partnership but that they could be overcome and dealt with. Knowledge and relationship is key, when local authorities and churches and other faith groups know each other they work better together. The principle barriers were fears about what faith groups would do, they were afraid they would be exclusive, afraid they would be against equality and afraid they are out to evangelise. These fears and suspicions are the outworking or religious illiteracy throughout local and national government.
Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, commented: “Nationally, this government fail to provide much needed guidance to local authorities on how they should develop religious literacy and work more with faith groups. If they are serious about nurturing society, and not just the state and the market, they need to do a lot more to understand the faith groups active at the heart of it.”
Because tolerance is not enough. It needs to be an active and growing relationship with a desire to understand more. It needs to let faith groups be faith groups because it is their faith that makes a difference.
The government, both local and national, need to take steps to nurture this relationship, and churches need to be ready to engage. There is work to be done on both sides of the equation, but the report specifically focuses on the call to local authorities to improve relationships and understanding, and for national government not to sit back and hope it will occur.
When the Big Society was first introduced churches leapt up to say they’d been doing it for a couple of thousand years and they were right they have. But if the government want churches good intent, deep capacity and proven ability to thrive and not whither they have to do more to improve religious literacy. They have to match their warm words with action.