Had an email today about a consultation event in November: part of the blurb (bold is all original, red is my emphasis)
This summer the Government published a new framework for building inter-faith cohesion and harmony in a multi-cultural Britain. ‘Face to Face and Side by Side’ sets out how government will work with faith based groups to improve community cohesion and interaction, as well as initiatives to support faith organisations in delivering public services. This commitment will be backed up by £7.5million worth of investment at national, regional and local level to build the capacity of faith based organisations and help them work and have dialogue with local authorities and regional development agencies
Delegates will have the chance to engage with the panel in investigating key questions such as:
- What are the key practical steps that local authorities can take in supporting inter faith community relations?
- How to integrate faith relations into wider strategies for community cohesion and empowerment and ensure dialogue and good relations between faith groups and local decision making bodies?
- How best to promote understanding and awareness of different beliefs and religious practices?
- How can faith based organisations best utilise their unique capabilities, access funding, and develop their infrastructure in order to deliver public services?
Since the email has the usual disclaimer at the bottom, I won't put the rest of it up for fear of being sued by a Texan, but most of the above is public domain anyway. A couple of thoughts:
1. I'm glad that this is going on. There are plenty of countries where a Christian presence is met with violence, persecution and death. Here, we are invited to partner with the government. That's good. The government is also starting to recognise the contribution churches and faith groups make to society at large. Again, good, though a recent report questioned how deep that recognition goes. To its credit, Face to Face and Side by Side tries to deal with some of the issues raise in Moral but No Compass?, including the need for an evidence base. Simply reading through the reams of local initiatives, and seeing that they are recognised by the government, is very encouraging.
2. If there's £7.5m to build the capacity of faith based organisations (highlighted in red, above), the best way to build capacity is to increase committed membership. I wonder if we can use some of that money to employ an evangelist? Just imagine having that kind of budget on your next Alpha course.....
3. The strong pragmatic leaning of the questions - 'practical steps' 'utilise capabilities' etc. Nothing about building a common vision/philosophy of a multi-cultural society. As I commented the other day, in political life we have seen the death of every 'ism' except pragmatism. As the common values which underpin our society have dissolved, the political class have fought shy of trying to spell out a vision of life, society and values which we can all sign up to. This comes naturally to religion, and is one thing we could really contribute to society, but lines about 'understanding and awareness' speaks to me of wanting to keep the really challenging questions at arms length. 'Sure we'll try to understand what you're about, but engage with it.......?'
It's interesting that 'Face to Face and Side by Side' spells out what the government would like to see, but misses the chance to spell out a Christian, or Muslim (or etc.) perspective on the same issues, and to show where the common ground is. In 132 pages on faith, God isn't mentioned once, which is either a triumph of even-handedness, or something else.
4. Labour is very keen to get the 'third sector' (charities and faith groups) involved in welfare delivery, and the direction of this consultation seems to be about how - with a financial incentive -faith groups can be bound into a clearer commitment to delivering government policy. Community cohesion, understanding of faith groups, these are familiar terms to anyone who's ever read a Home Office document or the national curriculum. Of course these are good things, but is this the government 'working with' faith groups, or faith groups working for the government and being paid for it?
5. You could reword the 4th question as 'how far can faith groups change their organisation and priorities so that they can become an arm of government?' Put like that, it sounds a bit less enticing. Yes there are areas of overlap between our priorities and the governments, but in the overlap, who is on top?
I'm all for partnership wherever it can work. Here in Yeovil there is lots of it - over youth, community, policing, new communities, poverty relief, homelessness, childrens services etc. But the ultimate community cohesion is that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, and that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to Himself. If we are going to be part of this conversation - as we should - then we need to be as confident in using our own language and worldview as the Government is in using theirs. Whether Christians are then penalised for this will show how serious the state is in engaging with us as equals.