Increasingly, politicians across the country are recognising faith-based communities for what they are – an untapped well of skills, assets and dedicated citizens already hard at work. The Cinnamon Network recently estimated the value of faith-based social action and community service to be £3bn annually, and the think tank Demos found that ‘religious people are more active citizens’, arguing that ‘local authorities stand to benefit both financially and through improved community relations if religious groups were brought into service delivery’.
Countries like Australia, Austria and Germany are already embracing these opportunities, and using faith-based organisations to deliver social services without wringing their hands at the separation of church and state. So what can the UK learn from the rest of the world? Many have attributed a hesitation to involve faith groups in public service to a general ‘squeamishness’ on both sides, which, however well-intentioned, wastes invaluable opportunities to harness the skills of those already working to improve our society. Some, fearing that including one community will offend another, waste time and resources trying to get everyone to the table. Others avoid the topic entirely, admin concerns that involving faith-based organisations will lead to taxpayer-funded proselytism.
Many politicians would not hesitate to emphasise the value of their faith – including our own Prime Minister Theresa May, who has recognised her upbringing as a Vicar’s daughter as what propelled her towards a life in public service. Labour MP Stephen Timms put it best when he argued that, after twenty years in government, “Faith is a great starting point for politics, one of the best starting points there is.” (Faith with its sleeves rolled up, 2013)
A reported ‘sense of unease’ around navigating faith at a local level is what led the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society to launch the ‘Faith Covenant’, a covenant for engagement which is already improving partnerships between local authorities (LA) and faith groups up and down the country. The Covenant aims to:
- Commit faith communities and local authorities to work together within a set of principles that guide engagement
- Remove the mistrust that can exist on both sides
- Promote open, practical working on all levels
The Covenant has driven change in Birmingham, where the council say faith communities have stepped up to take positions of leadership in the face of drained Local Authority resources, and address new challenges in a city divided by Brexit. Elsewhere, in Barnet under the Covenant, the council have formally recognised their Multi-Faith Forum as the ‘faith voice’, opening new lines of dialogue for social action and the celebration of cultural diversity. 3.25 million people are currently covered by the covenant signed by six local authorities, with more on the way.
Through the Covenant, Faith Action are working on a macro scale to help those inside and outside of faith communities recognise the immeasurable impact faith can have in our society. Meanwhile, down on the ground, projects are moving beyond traditional paradigms to foster two-way partnerships between faith communities and those using the services. Through the Friendly Places initiative, almost 300 organisations and individuals are offering safe spaces throughout the country, supporting and building community with those suffering from mental health issues.
It is through this connectivity, this transparency, and this recognition of assets already helping those in need, that government and faith organisations can work together most effectively – and This starts with overcoming any ‘squeamishness’ and realising the true value of faith in our community.