Opinion: Hot Issue - Are faith groups an appropriate vehicle for civil renewal?

Home Secretary David Blunkett wants to boost the involvement of faith-based groups in encouraging civil renewal, and has published a report to help the Government and faith groups work together.

YES - Daniel Boucher, national assembly liaison officer, Evangelical Alliance

Manifest across the breadth of the nation, profoundly involved in welfare provision and touching the very heart of human identity, faith communities present an important potential partner for government as it seeks to engage different parts of civil society in the renewal project. Of particular importance in this regard, the welfare projects of such groups are distinctive for engaging larger numbers of volunteers than secular projects. It will be in everyone's interest if this energy can be tapped for the purpose of promoting civil renewal.

This is not to suggest that faith communities should be government's only civil renewal partner. But the publication of the Home Office report specifically addressing faith communities is extremely welcome, because it helps to address problems that have in the past prevented them from engaging on a level playing field with secular bodies.

I hope that the capacities of the different faith communities, as crucial engines for civil renewal, find full expression in partnership with government, and indeed wider civil society.

YES - Justin Davis Smith, director, Institute for Volunteering Research

As a recent report from the Institute for Volunteering Research shows, in many communities faith groups are at the forefront of the provision of vital community services and the battle against social exclusion. They provide a locus for community involvement and for the building of social capital. They provide a bridge between different communities and offer a unique insight into the richness and diversity of our multicultural society.

But many groups suffer from acute under-funding and operate very much at the margins. Any attempt to increase their role will require additional support, particularly if they are to be asked to operate across different communities. And some faith groups might resist the call to expand or re-align, fearing that their core values and mission will be compromised in the process.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for government to learn to live with the plurality of views that will be thrown up. Governments like the sector to speak with one voice. Drawing faith groups into the heart of the decision-making process will underline the fact that it is diversity rather than consensus that lies at the heart of the voluntary sector - and is one of its greatest assets.

NO - Terry Sanderson, vice-president, National Secular Society

Faith groups are increasingly involved in social and welfare work, and sometimes they do an excellent job. But sometimes they seem to put as much emphasis on evangelising their clients as they do on service delivery.

When they are using their own money, this is fair enough, but when they are using public money, it is totally unacceptable. There should be no demand for religious observance in exchange for services.

In the US, where President Bush's "faith-based welfare" programme has been enacted, there have been several cases of faith groups discriminating against those who do not share their faith, or who will not worship in exchange for services.

The new anti-discrimination employment regulations, introduced in the UK in December, give religious bodies the right to refuse to employ those who do not share their faith. If jobs from the public sector are taken over by religious bodies, those employees who don't have the right religious credentials may find themselves out of a job. These are issues that the Government must address before it starts handing out large amounts of cash to religious groups.

YES - Ian Owers, chief executive, The Active Faith Communities Programme

More than 75 per cent of the population have some level of religious affiliation. Faith is not a minority sport. People of faith are active partners in social projects, regeneration schemes, neighbourhood action plans and a vast range of social activities that bring people together in situations of equality and common interest.

Faith groups have the confidence to address difficult issues - local inter-faith dialogues have provided safe spaces in which Christians, Muslims and others have been able to share their fears and concerns around issues such as global terrorism, the dangers of post-Iraq polarisation, and the threat of extremist nationalism.

If you want to communicate with a far larger and more diverse population than attends football matches in a given week - use the faith networks.

That's the hopeful potential of the message to mosques from the Muslim Council of Britain urging a concerted effort to work for peace and security, or the East Anglian monk on Radio 4's Today programme denouncing the use of "Muslim" as an appropriate adjective for a bomb.

Faith groups? Ignore them at your peril.

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