Saturday, December 20, 2008

Charity Commission: Mission is consistent with charity status

The Charity Commission published new guidance this week on religious charities, with a clear statement that mission activity is consistent with charity status. (Church Times report here, also reported at Religious Intelligence). New charity legislation has, since 2006, required charities to prove 'public benefit', and the guidance spells out how the 'advancement of religion' can qualify for this.

Here is the key section, in Annex B 'Examples of ways in which charities can advance religion'

Seeking new followers or adherents
Proselytising (seeking to convert someone to a faith or religion) is used by many charities advancing religion as an established and accepted means of attracting new followers or adherents. In some religions proselytising is seen as an essential part of the outworking of the religion.

For example, Christians regard evangelising as a central part of their religion.

In the majority of cases, proselytising is carried out sensitively and without coercion and does not present any public benefit difficulties.

However, there are circumstances in which the way in which proselytising is carried out, or the effects of proselytising, can affect public benefit, such as where it involves:
  • exerting improper pressure on people in distress or need; or
  • activities that entail the use of violence or brainwashing; or
  • activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members of the religion.
Which all seems very sensible, and recognises that mission is part of the character of Christian faith, rather than trying to chop off the missionary arms and legs of Christian groups to turn them into social charities. However, the guidance also provides a fairly broad-brush definition of what 'public benefit' might look like:

the following are examples of the ways in which advancing religion has the potential to be for the public benefit:
  • the provision of sacred spaces, churches and worship services;
  • the provision of public rituals and ceremonies;
  • contributing to the spiritual and moral education of children;
  • contributing towards a better society for example by promoting social cohesion and social capital;
  • carrying out, as a practical expression of religious beliefs, other activities (such as advancing education or conflict resolution, or relieving poverty), which may also be charitable;
  • contributing to followers’ or adherents’ good mental and physical health; aiding the prevention of ill health, speeding recovery and fostering composure in the face of ill health;
  • providing comfort to the bereaved;
  • healthcare and social care.

It is not necessary for a charity advancing religion to have to demonstrate all of the types of benefit listed above. It may be sufficient to demonstrate just one benefit.

It also puts the ball squarely in the court of those who don't think religious groups should have charitable status, to produce the evidence.

The need for evidence: as with other charities, in the same way that public benefit must be capable of being demonstrated, so must detriment or harm where this is an issue. In assessing the public benefit of charities whose aims include advancing religion we will consider any evidence of significant detrimental or harmful effects of that organisation carrying out its aims in its particular circumstances.

General disagreement with the beliefs, activities or practices of a particular religion does not constitute evidence of the existence of detriment or harm.

It'll be interesting to see what the likes of the National Secular Society do with that one. They're clearly a bit cheesed off that the CC didn't accept their arguments. It really is fascinating to play 'spot the narrative' on their website: with one cluster of stories (e.g. abolition of the blasphemy law) it's a 'woohoo, Britain is becoming a secular society and we're leading the charge', but with unfavourable stories it's all about special pleading and collusion between church and state. And (as usual), no attempt whatsoever to be balanced and accept that faith groups do generate public benefits.

On a lighter note, I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

However, not all charities whose aims include advancing religion have a governing document which sets out its aims in this way.

For example, in the Church of England, Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) are governed by an ecclesiastical measure which sets out some of the ‘functions’ of a PCC which form the basis of the aims.

In other words, the CofE doesn't define itself as a missionary church in its governing documents. Oops. But it looks like the CC will let us share our faith anyway, so that's ok.

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