Conservative Diary

« Government whip publicly cautions against rushing NHS reforms and calls for the Health Bill to be amended | Main | Conservatives should celebrate Tesco, Sky, Glaxo and Ryanair »

Should the Government be doing more for the Churches... or vice-versa?

By Paul Goodman

Even were I an atheist, I'd want government to clear space in the public square for the faith communities in general and the churches in particular.  They run schools, hospices, homeless shelters, employment programmes, charities, clubs, voluntary groups, projects for people with substance abuse problems and mental health difficulties, advice centres for those who are in debt, counselling for people who've lost parents, spouses and children - and much more.

A Home Office study has found a correlation between religious observance and volunteering.  As "Moral, but no compass", a report for the Church of England, said: "A significant number of studies show a positive correlation between church attendance and civic habits, while others, at least thus far, show a positive correlation between religious conviction and the ability to adjust to the ageing process with positive mental health."  According to a Cabinet office report, there are over 22,000 faith-based charities working across England and Wales.

So for cool, calculating reasons, the state has cause to help the temples, mosques, synagogues and especially the churches to thrive.  I make no apology for stressing the last.  This country's religious heritage is Christian in general, and - outside the other three parts of the United Kingdom - Church of England in particular.  "Schools and hospitals" are one of the top election issues each time round.  Each time you look at one, you're seeing an institution with Christian roots.

The spires that break the skyline are a reminder that cold reason takes one only so far.  The churches, like the other faith communities, should mean more to politicians than taxpayers relieved and pounds saved.  They help tell a story about where we've come from, who we are, and where we're going.  Britan is an increasingly secular country, but secularism itself - the separation of church and state - has Christian provenance: Jesus of Nazareth saying that what's Caesar's is Caesar's, and what's God's is God's.

David Cameron isn't an atheist who needs convincing.  Raised in an old rectory with a daughter at a faith school, he's an unfervent Anglican with a understated faith - characteristic, in its way, of a reticent English approach to religion. Quoting Boris Johnson, he's compared his belief in God to trying to pick up "Magic FM in the Chilterns".  His Cabinet contains Christians such as Iain Duncan Smith, as well as atheists like Oliver Letwin, and is no less sympathetic towards the faith communities than the last one - perhaps more.

Letwin, the Cabinet's "blue-sky thinker" captures the flavour of the Cameron Project's approach to faith.  Wary for political reasons of the Party's association with opposition to gay adoption and civil partnerships (stances certainly taken by traditional Christians and others), he's none the less enthusiastic about the financial, ethical and social contribution that the faith communities make to society - or rather, given his responsibilities, to the Big Society which the Prime Minister wants to make even bigger.

During the 1980s, the church establishments were sometimes openly hostile to the Conservative Party: remember the Faith in the City row.  This no longer so, for three main reasons.  First, the Keynesian consensus of the early part of that decade is long gone.  Second, relations with the churches have been improved by Iain Duncan Smith's toil at the Centre for Social Justice, the work of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and the intellectual heavy lifting of such frontbenchers as Greg Clark, demonstrated recently here.

The third reason is the most important.  The more the Labour years went on, the more the churches seemed to believe that the tides of contemporary culture were against them, and that Labour had little interest in buttressing the sea defences.  The Sexual Orientation Regulations - which hampered the work of some Catholic adoption agencies - Civil Partnerships, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, the Charities Act, the last Government's attempt to impose quotas on faith schools...all helped to alientate the Churches.

It would be wrong to suggest that all Christians take the same view on sex-related issues.  There are liberal Christians.  And there are traditional ones who place as much stress, if not more, on economic or social matters.  But there seems to be a growing sense, among Christians of all persuasians, that the churches are being slowly driven from the public square.  The Equality Act, in particular, has made it more difficult for Christian agencies, projects and charities to nurture the ethos which inspires their work.

So the Conservative Party is pushing against a door more open than at any time for the past 50 years.  Rowan Williams has duly given two and a half cheers for the Big Society - which is at least two cheers more than he or his recent predecessors would have given Thatcherism.  As some Catholic commentators have noted, especially at the time of the Pope's visit, Big Society thinking and Catholic social teaching overlap: both stress solidarity, that "there is such a thing as society", and subsidiarity, that power should be devolved.

No wonder Vincent Nicholls has said that "the Big Society is a step in the right direction".  There are other important churches in Britain, of course - the Methodists, the Baptist Union, United Reform - but the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster tend to set the tone.  The Jewish community's stress on philanthropy, self-help and social action has long made its dealings the Party relatively easy: Margaret Thatcher's favourite cleric was the late Lord Jacobowitz.

The Muslim communities have no equivalent of the Board of Deputies, but there's no reason to believe that they, or Hindu and Sikh belivers, are unsympathetic to the Big Society idea, and there is some early progress.  The Prime Minister has met the two Archbishops and the Chief Rabbi together.  Eric Pickles has torn up some of the politically correct red tape at the Communities Department, and taken up the Archbishop of York's warning of an "intolerance towards Christians in the public sector".

And Big Society money has started to roll: for example, the Church Urban Fund has gained £5 million "to promote inter-action in communities" (though, had Downing Street not been running with the concept, the grant would surely have been paid anyway, and badged in a different manner).  Sayeeda Warsi returned from Pakistan last week to address a big Roman Catholic conference, setting out the Government's view in a major speech.

So far, so good - but just how good are relations between the Churches and the Parry?  As I said, the former aren't focused on the so-called "moral" issues alone.  But both the Anglican and Catholic ones are strongly opposed to the Government's flirtation with gay marriage.  They also disliked David Cameron's reaction to the Johns judgement, believing that he was indulging in positioning rather than responding to issues.  The Prime Minister's raised Anglican hackles before by seeming to lecture the church on equal rights for gays.

However, the main cause or their unhappiness remains the equality laws.  In Opposition, there was talk of a compact with the Churches which would proclaim their right to deliver services to an agreed standard according to their ethos - an ideal championed by FaithWorks.  Nothing has come of this to date, which some Tories hoped would address one of the churches' main concerns - the lack of a level playing field when bidding for government contracts.

The religious illiteracy of some (though not all) government departments, much of local government and perhaps especially the Charity Commission - with its peculiar classification criteria for religious charities - also rankles, as does the lack of interest in some parts of government of establishing an evidence base to measure the success or otherwise of faith-based initiatives.  And above all this looms the shadow of "the cuts": the funding tap for many faith-based groups is being tightened.

In many cases, local authorities are slashing funding to voluntary groups - and blaming the government - rather than cutting costs and waste.  My colleague Harry Phibbs is a mine of information on the subject.  But even were this not the case, the Government wants faith-based bodies to deliver more at a time when funding's being scaled back.  The Keynesian consensus may be dead, but its ghost is stirring: the churches in poorer areas will defend, as they see it, they interests of the flocks they care for.

Leaving the DCLG to deal with all this is a big ask.  At the least, Downing Street should ensure that its new Policy Unit is across the issues, perhaps tasking someone in the cross-cutting research and analytics unit - which is the section charged with cross-departmental issues - to look at it and make recommendations.  At the most, the Prime Minister needs someone in Number Ten to help manage faith-based policy, as John Battle did for Tony Blair and Stephen Timms for Gordon Brown.

All in all, there is a critique of the Government which runs as follows.  The Conservative leadership wants the benefits which the faith communities bring without giving them the support they need.  At heart, it treats the churches in the same way that a trendy young couple treat an embarrassing live-in relative - as very useful about the house, doing all the dirty work that no-one else wants to do, but to be ushered quietly upstairs when those neighbours you want to impress come round for dinner.

As I say, there's more that Number 10  should do.  But it must be remembered that this a Coalition Government, not a Conservative one.  And even if Cameron was the Prime Minister of a bright blue Government, I doubt that this line of criticism would be fair.  After all, there's no reason why Government and the Churches should agree on everything, and there's also a strong case for turning the whole argument on its head.  Ask not what Downing Street can do for the churches, but rather what the churches can do for Downing Street - or, rather, for the country.

To say this sounds counter-intuitive, to put it mildly.  What about all that work I mentioned earlier?  What about a thousand specific examples - such as, to pluck only one out of the hat, the turnaround of the New Deal under the last Government that was led by the Church of England in Leicester?  But there's another way of thinking about the contribution of the churches to Britain, by looking not at what they do already, but at how much more they could do still.

Cameron has pledged "a new presumption...that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service".  Why shouldn't the Churches, and other faith communities, respond creatively and imaginatively?  Take hospitals, for example - one of those institutions with Christian origins that I cited earlier.  Why shouldn't they have a Christian future as well as a past?  Why shouldn't the Church of England bid to run one in, say, each diocese?

Or schools.  The Catholic Education Service appears to be less than enthusiastic about the Government's academy programme, and the Archbishop of Westminster has described the omission of religious education from the baccalaureate as "indefensible".  Michael Gove, in turn, has taken to the Catholic press to make the case for academies, arguing that "opting out of local authority control would ensure a Catholic school could “remain true to its Catholic traditions”.

It's significant that Gove's article praised Michael Gormally, the former headmaster at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial school, who has clashed with the diocese over the school's future, while parents and others are currently at loggerheads with the Archbishop.  But there is scope for a settlement here, with Education Secretary reviewing the content of the baccalaureate and the Archbishop, in his turn, encouraging more Catholic schools to become academies.

As "Moral, but no compass" points out, there are models abroad for the Church of England - and others - to draw on in relation to welfare provision, child and family welfare, and health provision.  It cites Anglicare and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, both based in Australia, the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Welfare Council, projects in Canada and the United States and, from a Catholic angle, Caritas Europa.  The report champions a new Church "social enterprise/voluntary sector support and co-ordinating body" to drive activity.

The Churches and faith communities have legitimate reason to hestitate.  Obviously, they don't want to be associated with the political programme of any one party.  More importantly, they're worried about being left holding the baby and the bill.  A different Government could cramp the operation of, say, a Church of England-run hospital in much the same way as the last one did the Catholic adoption agencies.  And the public spending tap can always be turned off once it's been turned out.

Some in the churches quote precedents for this, believing that they were left high and dry when Manpower Services Commission cash ran out during the 1980s.  However, there's more to the matter than money.  At the heart of it is a difference of understanding about the role of the state.  There's little support among the Church establishments for the idea of a smaller state - of faith communities replacing taxpayer-funded state services with their own voluntarily-funded ones.

This, of course, is not what the Prime Minister's Big Society is about.  Rather, he envisages mutuals, co-operatives, community groups, companies - and so on - bidding to run public services: purchaser and provider separate, but the money is still the taxpayers'.  This touches the heart of the matter.  There's resistance among the Church leaderships to this vision, too.  In parts of Church House and the Catholic Bishops' Conference, there's an unspoken, tacit assumption that the 1945 settlement should stand intact.

This different ideal, abandoned by Labour under Tony Blair, sees the state as provider as well as purchaser.  The shadow of William Temple, author of "Christianity and the Social Order" and one of the shapers of the pre-Thatcher settlement, still looms over the Church of England.  Perhaps churches other than the "Big Two", the Jewish community and the other faiths will prove more responsive.  The Party has had especially energetic - if sometimes erratic - dealings with the black churches, but their capacity is relatively small.

Some of the churches' criticisms of the political parties is telling: that their understanding of what faith communities bring to the table is limited, that their interest is low, that their engagement is erratic, and that they tend to get engaged largely at election time.  But Downing Street has a reasonable response - that too many people in the Church bureaucracies cling reactively to the status quo.  Should the Government be doing more for the churches, or vice-versa?


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.