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Friday, October 28, 2016
Viewpoint: 'Faith in our Communities' - the Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP
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 There is an interesting paradox in modern society. On the one hand, we are told that Britain is an increasingly secular society, with traditional church attendances falling, and consumerism rampant. On the other, the role of faith and the inter-relation between the great world religions has never been more discussed or higher on the political agenda. The 2001 census recorded that over 70% of the population describes itself as Christian, with 2.7% describing themselves as Muslim. A poll in the Guardian in 2006 found that 41% would attend a religious service at least a few times a year. There are conflicting trends: Anglican congregations are dwindling, but in some places Catholic congregations are being swelled by Polish workers. Non-conformist churches are closing down in some parts, but new evangelical churches are opening. The number of British Muslims is growing. The overall picture is that for millions of people in Britain, faith is an important factor and force in their lives, alongside the millions who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. This is a fact that politicians and policy-makers must acknowledge and deal with. We can't ignore it, especially as the role of mainstream politics is diminished in many places. As we debate the future of public services, it is impossible to ignore the role of faith schools, religious-inspired Academies, or the significant role of faith-based voluntary organisations. The main religions each highlight the importance of philanthropy, altruism and protection for the most vulnerable. As we debate issues such as immigration, anti-social behaviour, housing or health we have to recognise the faith component. I believe that faith groups can play a vital role in our communities. In every neighbourhood in Britain, there is an infrastructure of churches, or mosques, or temples or synagogues, and in some parts of our cities four or five religions co-exist in the same neighbourhood. Each of these communities has a programme of outreach, ministry, voluntary work and benevolence. I have never believed that the state should do everything. I believe that local communities should own and direct their local services, for it is here that you find the problem-solving genius and inspirational leadership, rather than in central government. In the wake of a tragedy, such as the shocking shootings and stabbings in London and Manchester in recent weeks, it is the faith groups who step in, bringing people together and providing community support. I do not think that the state should be replaced by charities and voluntary organisations. I do believe that more power can and should be passed to local communities, within a framework of support, funding and minimum standards. There is often a level of innovation and ingenuity within small faith-based voluntary organisations which larger organisations and the state can learn from. As the Labour Party debates its future and chooses its new leadership team, we will be thinking about the interaction between state, community and citizen. We will need to address questions around how we provide services, bring communities together, tackle discrimination and prejudice and create the good society. We need to contrast our values and approach with the Conservatives and others, who want to cut public services. I pay tribute to all of the faith leaders in all religions who stand up to the extremists, who show through the true teachings of the Bible, Koran and Torah that religious faith is about peace, respect for others, love of family and community, and about the basic laws that allow humans to live together. It is through inter-faith dialogue and learning that true respect can be forged. Most Christians are simply unaware that the Koran reveres Jesus as a prophet. Many Jews, Muslims and Christians are unaware of the rich Abrahamic heritage we share in common. A study of other people's religions is a prerequisite for a greater understanding of one's own. There has been much discussion about the tensions between religions, races and ethnic groups. But I believe that Britain is an exemplar of how a multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation can work in practice. We should not dismiss those who hold secular views but the role of faith will remain an important part of our modern society.
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