The view from halfway

Daniel Singleton

This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and Social Action.

Daniel SingletonAlthough not always consistent, the current coalition, like the Labour government before it, has been positive toward faith organisations. Indeed in some respects it has gone further than its predecessor, giving faith-based organisations a sense of new possibilities for social action. These possibilities are, however, limited both by a lack of resources and a lack of imagination amongst government, the civil service and amongst faith communities themselves.

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[F]aith remains as relevant to this country as it ever was… [F]aith answering the call, flexing muscles, rolling up its sleeves and getting stuck in retains its unique ability to inspire, to revitalise and, above all to strengthen our society.[1]

  Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State

Two questions come to mind when looking at the coalition government and faith: do they understand faith communities in the UK? And how much do they genuinely want to involve faith in their policy?

Seemingly the coalition looks ready to engage in a dialogue about faith. David Cameron’s first reshuffle resulted in the appointment of Baroness Warsi to Cabinet with a ‘faith’ portfolio; this would appear to put faith at the forefront of government considerations. However, all is not as it seems. Whilst the appointment of ministers at the top of government is significant, the faith sector is not immune to cuts which the coalition is committed to. So there is less funding in real terms for grass roots organisations to access directly from Government agencies and without government support to infrastructure bodies such as faith forums there is a loss of the structures and intelligence that was built up, or at least begun, by the previous government.

Symbolic or systematic?

The question remains; does the coalition have a coherent message or policy regarding faith? Baroness Warsi’s remaining in cabinet, albeit not as a full member, with the portfolio of faith is a significant symbolic act and symbolism is not without its uses – but is this sufficient for those from faith communities to use to our advantage? The position of Iain Duncan Smith and his team in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)[2] may have more significant ramifications for faith. It is DWP which is at the forefront of public sector and welfare reform. If there was to be a radical place for a ‘faith minister’ it would be here; if the government desires to radically recast the accepted ‘settlement’ between the state and society, what better place for examining the role of faith in the public square? Baroness Warsi, however, is split between the Foreign Office and DCLG, which has promise but could be viewed as at the periphery compared to the very different culture and approach of DWP.

Sarah_Teather_MP_at_Harrogate
Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather: “She was returned to the backbenches and has since been re-born as, for instance, one of the most eloquent opponents of the cap on welfare benefits.”

It is maybe ominous to look at the recent turnover of ministers. At the same time Baroness Warsi was being elevated as faith minster to cabinet, Paul Burstow MP and Sarah Teather MP, both of whom have a quiet but firm faith, were losing their Ministerial positions. It could be deduced that faith is not conducive to a ministerial career; the Catholic Herald says this about Sarah Teather.

But after two years when this hitherto high-profile conviction politician effectively disappeared from view, she was returned to the backbenches and has since been re-born, voting against her party, for instance, as one of the most eloquent opponents of the cap on welfare benefits. So is she back where she feels most comfortable, with room for her conscience to breathe?[3]

Teather goes on to express how her faith has affected her responses to government policy most notability around gay marriage – it would appear that the independence of the back benches is a place where religious freedom has more room to operate than the seemingly more powerful position of office. Does this tell us something about the coalition’s attitude to faith?

It is from the back benches that other calls for religious accommodation are made, which could suggest parliamentarians’ lack of confidence in the coalition’s intentions when it comes to faith. Christians in Parliament, Chaired by senior conservative back bencher Gary Streeter MP, produced the report Faith in the Community which calls for a ‘plural’  approach to society rather than a Secular mode of operation,[4]  suggesting ‘reasonable accommodation’ should be the goal: that UK society should be open about faith rather than pursue the privatisation of belief.[5]

What could be

For inspiration of what a greater role for faith could look like, we need look no further than the integrated state and faith based social care in Germany, where over 50 per cent of social care is shared between the Caritas and Diakonie as part of the post war organisation of German society. Or we can look at Australia, where welfare to work is essential to the remit of Mission Australia or the Salvation Army. In Austria, Caritas has played a significant role in establishing a bank for the unbankable in partnership with Erste Bank, which uses volunteers and existing bank branches to provide basic banking services for those who would normally not be able to get a bank account, thus enabling them to play a fuller part in everyday life.[6]

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“In Germany, over fifty per cent of social care is shared between [faith organisations] the Caritas and Diakonie.”

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Salvation_army_perth_01_gnangarra
A Salvation Army building in Perth Australia. The Salvation Army play a central role in the delivery of welfare-to-work pro-grammes.

Approaches like this may not be what we want to pursue in the UK, but to even consider this kind of radical realignment of the role of faith and society, we have to recognise that there is a greater range of social and political possibilities than are usually acknowledged in public deate. We need to broaden our mind-sets to what could be.

A renewed open mind to the possibilities of faith is very far from the situation we find ourselves in today. The restriction in imagination of what faith could do and be is to some extent caused by a limitation in the vision of political leaders and to some extent by the limited aspirations of faith communities themselves. However, there is a lack of clarity in government departments which means that to explore the coalition’s attitude to faith we must also look at the bureaucracy that implements policy.

Whitehall: the confused picture

A good summary of Whitehall’s attitude to faith is made by Francis Davis, in an article on the Radical Centre website.

Time and again it has looked as though government knew nothing about an area where they were supposed to be helping: First, there has been ‘faith’ only as an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ … [leading to] concern about equalities, discrimination and civil liberties. Second, there has been ‘faith as a security threat’ where, in many instances, policy regarding cohesion has been a blanket cover for a creeping fear of Muslims bundled up with an assertion that all religious people have … a fear of integration and cohesion. Third, there has been ‘religious voluntary action’, …. Unfortunately those responsible for ‘mainstream’ voluntary sector policy have preferred to bung these back into the zones of ‘cohesion’ or’ ‘beliefs’ and exclude them.[7]

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“Many from Catholic countries see their faith-based social action as a part of who they are, rather than what they believe – what we term ‘faith based social action’ they would call, if anything, ‘social action’.”

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In FaithAction’s work amongst Government departments we have found this a useful explanation to why it is that there seems to be an invisible box that some officials expect ‘faith’ to sit in. This perhaps can be explained as a hangover from the Enlightenment and Protestant Evangelicalism which expects faith to be position of an active belief rather than a point of identity and belonging. Many from Catholic countries see their faith-based social action as a part of who they are, rather than what they believe – in fact what we term as ‘faith based social action’ they would call, if anything, ‘social action’. Whatever the cause of this boxing up of faith, governments may change swiftly but the civil service practice remains embedded. Alternative ‘institutions’ outside of government are not something that is understood in Whitehall; this is after all the role of the civil service!

It is strange then if the civil service (and local officials) are  somewhat of a barrier to faith-based activity, when it is that same civil service which originated as an institution staffed by the medieval church, serving ‘Ministers’ in ‘Ministries’. As a custodian of the very British characteristic of ‘fairness’, the demands of equality legislation leaves many from faith settings feeling that officialdom has a decidedly secularist flavour.[8]

Institutional ‘bad’ memory

There is a sense that New Labour’s approach to faith did not succeed; there were certainly different attitudes to Muslims groups demonstrated by different Secretaries of State at CLG. The thorny issue of Preventing Violent Extremist (PVE) casts a shadow over much of this period, which left Muslim organisations feeling tarred and other faiths feeling neglected. (At one point it there was rumoured to be 26 officials at CLG tasked with PVE and 6 focused on other faith issues.) As well as being a negative lens to view faith through, PVE was an inflexible instrument. I met one police commander who had seen the growth of extremism on his patch but the PVE strategy was focused on Islamic extremist and would not flex to deal with the growth of right-wing extremism and racial intolerance. Although there were a number of worthy initiatives such as the Face to Face and Side by Side DCLG paper (which supported regional faith forums and the Faith in Action fund) and the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund,[9] PVE remains the main imprint left by new Labour faith policy.

Thus, what we are left with is a clearing which has been ‘slashed and burnt’ by the previous government policy and which now gives the room for the ‘green shoots’ of possibility.

Green Shoots of possibility

Well, there are some green shoots, not of economic growth (although the faith based contribution of local economy will be an interesting study in itself) but of faith based initiatives: social capital being built up or, as Charles Oham puts it, ‘spiritual capital’,[10] mostly independent of government funding. (That is, a private or independent sector of faith, as opposed to a public sector-led or -initiated activity.) This can lead us to coin the phrase ‘services to the public’ rather than public service delivery. Services to the public are defined as projects which are available to all, with no restriction, in line with equality of access, but in many cases may not be funded by the state and resourced instead by faith communities.  A good example of this is CAP Centres (Christians Against Poverty) which are not funded by government but provide a debt counselling service alongside a professional restructuring of personal debt.

Maybe the most important thing this government has done is to give a sense of permission. We have seen a rapid growth of some faith based initiatives, like the Trussell Trust Food banks. If you have some resources, cash, buildings, expertise or connections there are some new places to operate in. With the new health structures there is a need for a more active informed citizenry to hold local bodies to account through lay membership. As a one Tory candidate told me before the election, the Conservatives will be less interested in who does what and how they do it, and more interested in what the results are. This at least would indicate an equality of possibility for faith-based organisations.

The whole problem needs a whole solution

This does leave a more subtle dilemma related to economic equality. In 1860’s America and Russia as the slaves and serfs were emancipated a key issue arose: political or civil freedom is all very well but it counts for little if there are not the means to exercise these freedoms. Without an adequate redistribution of the land both former slaves and serfs continued to suffer exploitation. Political permission is severely limited if there is not the resource to pursue this freedom. So it is in our new context of ‘permission’; if the resources and assets remain in the hands of Government (whether this be national or local) rather than in the hands of these newly established, but vibrant faith groups; there is a limit to how this freedom can be exercised. You can only be free to serve your community if you have the resources to do so, aspiration does not make money grow on trees.

There is some truth in the argument that government matters less than it has in the past. Certainly, in responding to public outcry, such as that around the tax affairs of Starbucks, the government and parliamentary levers of power were left wanting in comparison to the swift and effective spontaneous campaign on social media. In 21st Century context of a 24 hour mass media cycle and social media, ‘control’ is giving way to ‘cajole’. Thus meaning the reduction of government funding can appear less important than government creating a more permissive society when it comes to faith-based initiatives.

Initiatives such as Street Pastors, Foodbank, The Cathedral Innovation Centre as well as faith-based youth work show how much can be done with limited resources. In some ways this is the private or independent sector of faith (i.e., not reliant on public sector funding). Yet if assets can be administered by local groups with the wrap around support of local congregations, a true double devolution, there is even greater potential. Is this what the coalition wants? Smaller state, bigger society? One suspects there are some, probably with an appreciation of faith, within the coalition that may see this as a good thing, however within all parties there is a strong Utilitarian tradition which works against this decentralising principle. As Jon Cruddas MP has said:

Utilitarians say people don’t know what their own interest is. They believe in an elite that makes the rules. Who push people to ‘maximise’ their satisfaction – as the elite defines it… Whether it’s the state or the market, utilitarianism tries to manage people with huge impersonal systems where no one’s in charge.[11]

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“Is the coalition willing to challenge the underlying commodification of life? I think maybe not, and until this is the case there will be a limit to how much it can gain from faith traditions within the UK.”

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Cruddas shows the deep roots of Bethamite utilitarianism in both left and right and thus alive and well in all three major political parties. It is this paradigm which sees people as individuals and is uncomfortable with other forms of association and institutions outside the state, such as trade unions, faith communities, professional associations and school governing bodies. If this attitude is at the basis of political understanding there is little room for true devolution and thus little room to harness the possibilities of local faith groups.

The government has to realise that there is no quick fix; no ‘one size fits all’ approach to civil society. It is no good marketing the right noises or being tied to a political correctness. In the UK today we need healthy places, where people can belong and find access to human flourishing. This means that sometimes we serve and sometimes we are served; we cannot reduce everything to a transactional existence. Is the coalition willing to challenge the underlying commodification of life? I think maybe not, and until this is the case there will be a limit to how much it can gain from faith traditions within the UK.

So what is the view on faith and the coalition from halfway?

Satisfactory could do better.

Daniel Singleton is the National Executive Director of FaithAction, a network of Faith based and Community organisations serving their communities by delivering public services such as childcare, health and social care, housing and welfare to work. Through this role, he has become influential in a number of government departments often promoting highlighting the role for Faith based organisations in communities around the UK.


[1] Taken from Eric Pickles Speech at the launch of ‘Faith with its sleeves rolled up’ at Parliament  – 9th May 2013

[2] Oft Dubbed the ‘Department of Worship and Prayer’ as key Ministers and Advisors are people of faith

[3] Peter Stanford, ‘“Being a Catholic Liberal Can Be Difficult”’, Catholic Herald, 14 May 2013, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/2013/05/14/being-a-catholic-liberal-can-be-difficult/.

[4] Christians in Parliament, Faith in the Community: Strengthening Ties between Faith Groups and Local Authorities (London: Christians in Parliament, 2013), 48.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] See http://www.erstestiftung.org/zweite-sparkasse/files/2011/06/Booklet_ENG_2011.pdf

[7] Francis Davis, ‘How Will the Government “Do God” After the Reshuffle?’, Radical Centre, 24 September 2012, http://www.radicalcentre.co.uk/index.php/faith-in-action/item/how-will-the-government-do-god-after-the-reshuffle.

[8] The All Party Parliamentary Group 2012 Summary Report  http://www.faithaction.net/inc_userfiles/Documents/FA_APPG_Report_2012.pdf

[9] Stephen Miller. Cohesion and empowerment: examples from the evaluations of Connecting Communities Plus, Community Grants and Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund.  http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/sites/default/files/UploadedFiles/Research_Events/Miller.pdf

[10] Charles Oham – ‘Could there be treasures in our faith? The recognition and utilisation of spiritual capital values’ Faith with its Sleeves Rolled Up ed. D. Singleton

[11] Jon Cruddas lecture on ‘the role of the state in the good society’ Published in New Statesman, 13th December 2012.

The image of the Salvation Army is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia license. The image of Sarah Teather is included courtesy of Keith Edkins and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

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