Charities and religion have long been bedfellows. Many of the UK's earliest charities were offshoots of religious movements, some of the country's first schools were set up by faith groups and religious charities provided health and social care before the welfare state existed.
But with the rise of secularism during the second half of the 20th century and the increasing reliance of charities on government funds, faith groups started to feel sidelined. Government, they felt, became reluctant to support them with money raised through taxes on an increasingly non-religious population.
The Government's approach to funding faith groups was reflected earlier this year when the then communities secretary Hazel Blears announced plans to produce a 'charter of excellence' setting out how the relationship between government and religious charities should work.
Blears said the charter, due to be published later this year, would be designed to ensure faith groups that receive public money did not use it for worship or converting people to their religion. Religious organisations would also have to provide any publicly funded services to people of all faiths, she added. The charter is set to arrive amid signs that the Government is becoming more willing to fund religious groups.
The Department for International Development, for example, gave £20.9m to religious NGOs in 2008, compared with £17.4m in 2003. Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, international development charity Progressio and World Vision are among the charities currently receiving DfID funds. "We are raising the profile of the relationship between faith groups and government," says a spokesman for DfID. "In many parts of the world, faith-based organisations are often highly effective at reaching large numbers of people in need. And at a global level, calls by faith leaders for governments to meet their promises to the world's poor can carry great influence."
Patrick Watt, head of public affairs and campaigns at World Vision UK, says the Government increasingly recognises that faith-based charities deliver results. "Faith-based NGOs and development charities are generally well respected by government because they are seen to be doing useful work," he says. "In some quarters there are perceptions that organisations such as World Vision have a proselytising agenda, but I think people increasingly recognise the quality of the development work of organisations such as ours."
Watt believes the Labour Party in particular has been polarised by the issue of funding faith groups. "Some people argue that faith-based NGOs have no role to play in development," he says. "The argument would be that in areas such as reproductive health, faith-based NGOs are driven by dogma. But there's growing trust and confidence in the quality of our work."
Mike Noyes, head of humanitarian funding at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, also believes the Government's attitude is changing. "Our main relationship is with DfID and they have known us for quite a long time, but I would agree that the general position of faith-based organisations has got a bit easier," he says. "There's certainly a recognition that faith-based organisations in some situations have a degree of local presence and legitimacy that other agencies don't have. Any lingering doubts that we are missionaries under another name have been resolved."
This shift is not limited to the international development world, says Steve Chalke, chief executive of Oasis Community Learning, a Christian organisation that runs nine of the Government's academy schools. "The Government is working with voluntary and private sector agencies more than before to deliver vital services," he says. "Faith groups stand on a level playing field in this, and the Government's view is pragmatic."
The change is also apparent at local authority level, says Nigel Roberts, schools resource manager at Youth for Christ. The charity works with about 200,000 young people a month, often through projects commissioned by local councils. "As faith-based organisations gain reputation and integrity, more and more local authorities are trusting them to deliver," he says. "When you look at what the church can offer and the quality of the people in the church, you are looking at people whose motivations are good. So pragmatically it makes sense to work with people like that."
In July last year, the Communities and Local Government department announced plans to spend £7.5m over three years supporting inter-faith activity. The department said the funding "reaffirms government support for the valuable work faith groups contribute to delivering services".
The Charity Commission is also trying to improve its relationship with the 25,500 religious charities in England and Wales. In 2004 it started a programme to improve its knowledge of these charities and extend its work with them. The programme resulted in the establishment of the Faith and Social Cohesion Unit in 2007 to support religious charities.
The British Humanist Association, however, is sceptical about the Government's increasing willingness to court religious charities. "This is a big problem for us," says Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the association. "A lot of the work the Communities and Local Government department does on social cohesion and good relations seems to be based on faith groups. I think they see these groups as a way to provide services in the community, but they are unaware of the tensions between groups."
Stinson fears that religious organisations might not help people who do not share their faith. She says the planned charter on the relationship between government and faith groups is a positive step, but wants to see a law requiring publicly funded faith groups to offer the same employment and volunteering opportunities to people of all beliefs.
Not all faith groups agree that the Government's attitude is changing in their favour. Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, says he is yet to be convinced. "The Government indicates that it is considering introducing measures that will show its support for Christian charities," he says. "After all, it needs the faith sector to help deliver public services. But the proof will be in the pudding. I haven't really seen any evidence of it yet."
Horrocks also believes there are signs that the Government is becoming more prejudiced against religious groups. He cites measures in the Equality Bill, introduced in Parliament in April, that prohibit religious charities from refusing to hire people because they don't share the same faith. "It could potentially force Christian groups, by threat of legal action, to effectively have their faith identities emasculated so they are prevented from delivering their services in a Christian way," he says.
Regulations made by ministers in 2007 under the powers of the Equality Act 2006 have also led to a row between two Catholic adoption agencies and the Government because the rules prohibit them from discriminating against same-sex couples who want to adopt. A number of adoption agencies have said they would rather close down than comply with the law.
Some observers have concluded that the Government is fostering faith groups primarily because they are useful providers of services, not because it approves of religion in itself.