Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Times Leader: Church and State

Ed: I've blogged on this here.

[...] there are many in government who not only see little place for faith-based organisations in secular society but are also actively hostile to the influence in multicultural Britain of an established Church seen as a fading remnant of hierarchical, class-based authority.

Such thinking is sharply attacked in a polemic report, published on Monday (see page 1), which champions the continuing role of the Church in social provision, mocks the religious illiteracy of local bureaucrats and insists that British society will be “infinitely poorer” if the Labour Government continues to ignore the Church while focusing obsessively on the demands and grievances of minority faith groups. The report, commissioned from the University of Cambridge by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, is sweeping in its condemnation. It accuses the Government of paying only lip service to the Church's role, lacking understanding or interest in the Church and “planning blind”, without a moral compass. Controversially, it contrasts this wilful disregard by Labour to the more sympathetic attitude of the Conservatives, who, it says, are readier to acknowledge that Christian churches had something unique to bring to the table as strong local leaders.

Many of these strictures hit home. Taking for granted the still-important role of the Church in education and social provision is insulting. Still more inflammatory is the Government's courting of faith minorities, including some extremist Islamic groups, to buy off discontent. What has angered many bishops is the dismissal of the churches in the Government's championing of interfaith “dialogue”, when they are best placed to understand the religious basis of reaching out.

The report is on more slippery ground when it calls for the Church to be put back at the heart of social provision. However valid the contention that voluntary bodies are more effective than government bureaucracies, there is no sense in calling for a return to a bygone age by giving new social powers to the churches. The partisan tone of the report would confirm the quip that the Church of England is the Tory party at prayer. It raises the question of where the Church thinks its influence is best felt: in the corridors of power, or in the housing estates and youth clubs. The report pleads for the Church to be taken seriously as a service deliverer; but its establishment as a state organisation makes such independent delivery very difficult. Surely, the Church should increase the effectiveness of its welfare services not because it is seeking good PR or because it will earn recognition from Government because because it is the right and moral thing to do. Read more
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