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Monday, March 27, 2017
New report on Government, Church and Welfare: 'Moral, But No Compass'
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 The government is 'planning blind and failing parts of civil society' when it comes to faith communities in general and aspects of charity law and social policy in particular, concludes a report by the Von Hügel Institute, an academic research centre and think tank based at St Edmund's College, Cambridge University. "The government has good intentions, but is moral without a compass," the authors say. The report, Moral, But No Compass - Government, Church, and the Future of Welfare, was commissioned by the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, Anglican Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, who officially received the report yesterday, on behalf of the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England. It was researched and written by Francis Davis, co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Faith in Society at the Von Hügel Institute, Elizabeth Paulhus, a researcher at the Institute, and Andrew Bradstock, co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Faith in Society at the Institute. The Institute's research involved interviewees from politics, churches, other faiths, the civil service and the voluntary sector. It 'uncovered huge gaps in government evidence about faith communities in general and the churches in particular,' according to the report. "We encountered on the part of Government," the report says, "a significant lack of understanding of, or interest in, the Church of England's current or potential contribution in the public sphere. Indeed we were told that Government had consciously decided to focus its evidence gathering almost exclusively on minority religions. We were unsurprised to hear that some of these consequently felt 'victimised'." The researchers also found the Charity Commission's data and systems of classification to be 'very weak', with a conscious focus on minority communities achieved to the relative exclusion of the Christian church and hundreds of other charities. They conclude that the government is fundamentally underestimating the number of Christian charities to the tune of thousands, and consequently their social, economic and civic impact and potential. "At the least," the report argues, "this means that the government cannot include this contribution in its deliberations. At most this raises again the view asserted by so many of our respondents, 'This Government is positively excluding people of faith'." Through their own research into the social, economic and civic impact of churches, the authors highlight the important roles of bishops, dioceses and cathedrals. They also note that they found 'congregations, clergy and volunteers running post offices and cafes, doctors' surgeries and asylum rights centres, homeless outreach and bereavement counselling, job creation and economic regeneration programmes, eco initiatives and youth clubs, peace networks and third world solidarity groups'. The report 'raises issues of considerable importance', the authors say, and makes recommendations to the Government, the Charity Commission and the Church. Among these, they recommend that the Government 'introduce new legislation to create a level playing field for faith-based agencies seeking to engage in public service reform, contracting and civic action'. They also argue that faith communities merit more than just a party post under the Prime Minister and call for a Minister for Religion, Social Cohesion and Voluntary Action. They call for additional funds to develop a serious faith-based evidence strand to the Cabinet Office's new centre for research/evidence excellence in the third sector and for the Charity Commission to review and amend its classification criteria. They recommend that the Church establish a new social enterprise/voluntary sector support and coordinating body to develop public advocacy and service provision engagement across the country. "Bearing all of this in mind," say the authors, "it is unsurprising that our respondents in the Church and Parliament, from the regions to London, in business and academia, told us that a fresh dialogue was needed. Such a fresh conversation, supported by new research and a new commitment on the part of both the Church and government to mobilise resources, could lead to inventive new work alongside the poorest and neediest in the UK and abroad." Welcoming this report, Bishop Stephen Lowe said: "We had little information about our own capacity or indeed level of existing activity. We had only a sketchy idea of political aspirations for our involvement. We needed an informed and reflective assessment of the position for the Church to consider the nature and extent of its future participation...I am delighted with the outcome." The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, called it a 'fascinating and important report'. "On the one hand it highlights and details some truly remarkable examples of public good delivered by the Church and faith based organisations - sometimes funded by the state, though mostly not - and a general picture of committed social engagement which if grasped imaginatively by the state could, indeed would, yield some extraordinarily positive results," the Archbishops said. "On the other it reveals a depressing level of misunderstanding of the scale and quality of contribution faith-based organisations make to the civil and civic life of our nation - our common good. This is particularly true in relation to the contribution of the Church of England, and its membership, on which the report focuses. "In short, this report urges the Church, government and others, notably the Charity Commissioners, to sit up, take note and to better understand each others roles and intentions in order to make the most of one of this nation's most diverse, creative and enduring assets - the Church.. "We all need to consider very seriously the report's recommendations and take appropriate action - for the good of the nation." Moral, But No Compass - Government, Church, and the Future of Welfare, by Francis Davis, Elizabeth Paulhus and Andrew Bradstock, Centre for the Study of Faith in Society at the Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund's College, Cambridge University, is published by Matthew James Publishing Ltd, price £9.95.
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