One of the proudest boasts of the major religions is that, in shifting times, they are standing their ground. Come what may, they will remain true to beliefs that will not alter because of whim, utility, technical innovation or social circumstance. As a claim, it still has a huge appeal. A part of all of us often finds change a challenge or even a threat. But as the recent debate on women bishops in the Church of England demonstrates, religious institutions are not always as impervious to wider trends as they'd have us believe.
The greatest tensions arise, however, when the secular world in which our various religious traditions must perforce operate (since we do not live in a theocracy) starts to look at faith itself with a new scrutiny that sometimes seems to border on hostility. Take the recent poll in The Observer newspaper, which reported that almost 60 per cent of those questioned said they wanted state-funded faith schools to be abolished. Only 10 years ago, such a finding would have been unthinkable. The 1944 settlement between church and state on such matters had for decades enjoyed widespread support.
So a major shift seems to be under way. As formal religious observation and denominational attachment decline in this country – especially in our national, established church – more questions are being asked about the role and responsibilities of religious bodies. At heart, many people nowadays see religion as the cause of wars and tension around the globe, and as an oppressive system at odds with fundamental human rights at home.
It might be a mistaken perception, but the question marks aren't going away any time soon and, as a result, many people don't want their money, especially their taxes, being spent on anything to do with religion. The rise and rise of a secular, scientific, sceptical society has therefore put faith-based charities, claiming tax advantages from the public purse, in the spotlight as never before. So is the link between religion and charity, once so instinctive, beneficial and taken for granted, now fracturing?
"Some faith charities do feel nervous or under threat," says Stephanie Biden (right),
a partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, who works with many religious charities. "I think that's because they increasingly find themselves at odds with prevailing social and cultural norms. This applies particularly to Christian groups, because there is a widening gap between popular opinion and traditional Christian teaching on issues such as sexuality and the beginning and end of life."
Many of those voicing such complaints point an accusing finger at the Charities Act 2006, which specifies that faith-based charities must be able to demonstrate that they provide public benefit. They have to be able to prove that they benefit wider society, whereas in the past the "advancement of religion" was generally taken as a good and beneficial thing in itself. The endless stream of stories about paedophile priests and abusive nuns, and the institutional cover-up around them, has helped to put pay to that forever.
A symbol of these changed circumstances has been the high-profile case of the Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon, turned down in 2012 for charitable status (and the financial advantages that come with it) because its introspective view of the world, and its habit of excluding non-members, did not pass the test of public benefit. The decision, however, was reversed this year, after the Preston Down Trust agreed to modify its constitution to appear more welcoming.
The dispute rumbled on for five years from start to finish and, in the process, prompted much soul-searching in religious charities. Julian Filochowski, former director of the Catholic overseas development charity Cafod and now a director of Aylesford Priory, a friary and retreats centre in Kent on the old route of the Canterbury pilgrims, says: "The case made religious charities somewhat nervous, but the 2006 act simply means that we need to think clearly about our public benefit and communicate it better in our annual reports. That can be a challenge for those charities that are more comfortable talking about the 'common good', which is arguably wider than 'public benefit'; but for most, this change poses no threat at all."
Degree of public access
Biden says the Brethren case might turn out to be a red herring. She says of charity law as it stands today: "Generally, it is taken for granted that religious teaching or worship is beneficial, so the question of public benefit turns on the degree of public access." This is why the Plymouth Brethren, with their tradition of exclusivity, ran into difficulties.
Those charities in the firing line, therefore, are likely to be the small number of closed religious groups – for example, ultra-Orthodox Jews – whose beliefs cause them to have as little interaction with the public as possible. Among about 32,500 charities on the Charity Commission's register that are currently classified as engaged in "religious activities" (just under 18 per cent out of a total of 181,000), they are unlikely to bother statisticians. And the figures suggest that, far from being in retreat, religious charities are on the up, accounting for more than a fifth of charities (1,644 out of 7,965) registered since the start of 2013.
The fear of the regime introduced in 2006 seems, therefore, to be out of proportion to the reality. So why the panic? "I don't think it is a response to changes in charity law," says Stephanie Biden. "It's more that religious charities feel marginalised or at odds with prevailing public opinion, then read charity law in the light of that."
Biden says that any sense, whether real or imagined, of being victimised might be found more among Christian groups, which are used to being in the mainstream of life in a country that is still officially Church of England, than among other minority faiths. "The latter are perhaps more used to having been in a minority position and having to explain their teaching and practices to the Charity Commission and wider society," she says.
Haras Rafiq (right), outreach officer at the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank set up to counter extremism, makes a different point: that Muslim charities might have been spared some of the scrutiny that other faith-based bodies have experienced.
"Until recently there has been a reticence – for whatever reasons relating to political correctness or sensitivity – to take action against groups that have charitable status in this country but which have been funding extremist, Islamist agendas here and in other parts of the world," he says.
'Religions have nothing to fear'
It was the Labour leader and self-defined atheist Ed Miliband who in 2006, as Minister for the Third Sector, offered official reassurance that "religions have nothing to fear" from the Charities Act 2006 as he piloted it into law with its public benefit test. "Making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit," he told the House of Commons in June of that year. And the following month, again at Westminster, he added another layer of reassurance. "It is my understanding that the bill will not fundamentally change the definition of religion as it will be applied by the commission," he said.
Some, however, now believe he was being misleading. The Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella organisation for many of the UK's more traditionally minded Christian churches, rallied to what they perceived as the plight of the Preston Down Trust by holding a public meeting in Westminster Hall, where it warned that the actions of the Charity Commission in this case "represented a threat of wider implications for other churches and religious groups".
And Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of Aid to the Church in Need, a charity that helps persecuted and suffering Christians across the world, sounded alarm bells that the legislation raised the prospect of more state interference in religious charities. Although the 2006 act did not "immediately endanger" religious groups, Kyrke-Smith argued in The Catholic Herald newspaper, "it could be used as a tool to target certain charities. This might eventually come to mean that we, as independent charities, have to toady up to the government in order to retain our charitable status, in the way that some of the larger charities already do".
The fear that hidden government agendas might somehow influence the way the Charity Commission operates might sound far-fetched, but in July Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said that there was a perception that the commission was "targeting Muslim charities in a disproportionate way". Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, the two largest Muslim charities, had spoken to him, he said, of their fears that the regulator's recent actions were damaging the reputation of Muslim charities.
In response, the commission rejected any charge of bias. But Rafiq of the Quilliam Foundation says that such investigations, even when justified and possibly even overdue, have the knock-on effect of causing anxiety in the British Muslim community. "The overwhelming majority of Muslim charities are not Islamist and have been set up by well-meaning people wanting to do good," he says. "But when they hear about other Muslim charities being investigated, they can all too easily adopt a victim mentality and start to fear that they are going to be next. It is a fear the Islamists play on with slick social media campaigns that encourage the idea this is a government plot to attack Muslim charities."
In such a climate of suspicion, the temptation to hark back to a golden era before the 2006 act is understandable, but might be misplaced. "The presumption that an organisation with objects relating to advancing religion met the public benefit test was always rebuttable," says Biden. "And in practice the Charity Commission used to examine anything that was novel and not mainstream quite closely."
As far back as 1949, for example, there was a landmark case on this whole question – Gilmour v Coats – in which an enclosed order of Catholic nuns was refused charitable status because their claim that their prayers represented a public benefit was rejected on the grounds that it couldn't be proved. Because the nuns said prayers entirely in private, without any public access, the court found against them.
Furthermore, the resented public benefit test should not be seen as causing trouble only for religious charities. In a recent case heard in the charity tribunal about the Human Dignity Trust – an organisation that challenges legislation criminalising consensual sexual activity between same-sex adults in certain foreign jurisdictions – the Charity Commission argued that the meaning of the 2006 act in connection with promoting human rights as a charitable purpose was unclear. But the charity tribunal ruled that it did constitute charitable activity.
Perhaps if the Plymouth Brethren case had also gone to the tribunal and not been resolved by the commission, the issue might have been given a thorough public airing and resulted in the calming of jangling nerves and exaggerated fears thereafter – although the counter-argument is that it was a one-off case because of their unusual practices, and therefore no wider principle could have been deduced from it.
But a definitive ruling from the tribunal could have clarified matters, for there seems to be a good deal of muddled thinking at present among religious charities because they focus too much on the potential threat that the 2006 act might represent, and not enough on bigger changes that are afoot. For example, one of the major challenges faced by charities – especially those that get funding from the public purse to deliver services – is being forced to conform to equalities legislation.
That is what caused such trouble for partly state-funded Catholic adoption agencies from 2009 onwards, when anti-discrimination rules brought in by the Labour government meant that they could not turn away gay potential adopters. Catholicism forbids same-sex relationships, so religious freedom and equality legislation clashed, and religion came off worse – as, arguably, did the hard-to-place youngsters for whom the Catholic agencies specialised in finding homes. It is an example of both the best and worst of a religious association – more adopters, more willing to take challenging children, but with an institutional prejudice against gay men and lesbians.
The second part of that equation might be why some faith-based charities have, over the past couple of decades, been carefully loosening ties with their churches in order to appear more mainstream, more modern and less prejudiced, and to dodge some of those awkward secular questions. But a few are now heading back in the opposite direction, according to Biden. "These charities might also reaffirm or seek to define their faith ethos more precisely so that they have a stronger legal footing if they want to be able to restrict employment or the provision of services to people who share their faith ethos and protect themselves from challenge under the Equality Act," she says.
There is a danger in making too much of this motivation. Other organisations have found that, by dropping from their names any mention of denominational attachment in order to court secular funders, they have alienated their natural constituency in the pews without finding anyone in the wider world to replace them. A return to the fold, therefore, makes good financial sense.
And there's another thorny issue looming on the horizon. After the Supreme Court's decision in December last year to concede that a Church of Scientology chapel was a legitimate place of meeting for religious worship, we might soon see renewed efforts by that church to claim religious status and the tax breaks that go with it.
The 2006 act did lay down broader parameters for what constituted a church, but the Charity Commission has so far shown no inclination to assess the religious, as opposed to the legal, merits of an organisation – to act as judge and jury on what constitutes divine truth and what is mere hokum. It would be an unseemly spectacle and would further damage whatever good name religion still retained in the public mind, and in terms of bringing benefits to any charity that claims to carry God in its shadow.
Lord Williams: the 'instinctive link' between religion and charity has come under strain
Lord Williams of Oystermouth – Rowan Williams as most of us know him – was Archbishop of Canterbury for a turbulent decade until taking early retirement in 2012 and returning to Cambridge University, his alma mater, as master of Magdalene College.
Who better, then, to debate the contemporary place of religion in the charitable world? When archbishop, he was president or patron of 300 organisations, from the secular to the spiritual, from Action for Blind People, Barnardo's and Crisis through to the Meningitis Trust (now known as Meningitis Now) and Sue Ryder. Since 2013, he has been chair of Christian Aid.
The "instinctive link" between religion and charity is, he fears, under strain as never before. "There is a lack of any sort of absolute assumption that religion is something good," he says. "Too many people today instead see it as bound up in conflict, in politics and in struggle."
It is that distrust, bordering on dislike, that is, he believes, the real context for the change that has required religiously based charities to demonstrate a public benefit where, before, their faith-attachment had been deemed sufficient. "I worry about the public benefit test," he says, although he notes that many church charities meet the new test with ease.
"What about the case of the hermit, living a life of prayer and silence, doing something very important but hard to define as a public good?" he asks. "The test would have to be pretty flexible to accommodate that." But current practice would suggest that should a hermit, or a group of hermits, apply to the Charity Commission for charitable status, they would fail. "Yes, we do have a hill to climb," he replies. "We still have to get across the message that the kind of space religion commands is a public good."
One of the keys tasks, says Williams, is to look again at the vocabulary used, especially the notion of justice, which many church organisations have come in recent decades to prefer to talk about than charity itself. "That is certainly a debate we have been having within Christian Aid," he says. "There's a growing feeling that the pendulum might have swung too far in the direction of justice. Justice can be a very chilly word, just as charity can sound patronising. We can do both."
Charity is, of course, a word with profound Christian associations, but arguing that religion can continue to bring a distinctive contribution to the third sector is becoming increasingly tough. Secularists tend to argue that atheists can do exactly the same good works, inspired by their humanity rather than by any notion of God. But Williams is having none of it.
"The bare fact is that the reason many people do what they do is precisely their faith," he says. "That is what they say when asked about charitable work. They might do exactly the same if they didn't have faith, but that is a speculative hypothesis. The fact remains that most of the food banks in this country are run by the churches."
Such distinctive and practical grass-roots initiatives – often overshadowed by the great ethical debates about women's ministry and gay priests that divide Anglicanism – are what Williams clearly wants to hear talked up. The Christian witness they provide, he says, is evidence that the churches are not being marginalised, as is often claimed. "There are some areas of our inner cities where the only person from outside still living there is the priest," he says.
That is why church organisations need to feel more confident about speaking up about what they do, he says. The public benefit test, in that sense, could be a positive encouragement. What they certainly don't need to be doing, he believes, is shying away from their religious roots in order to try to blend in with the secular world.
"There was a loss of nerve in one or two church organisations," he says. "The Church of England Children's Society, as it was before it became simply the Children's Society, had always done a lot with local churches and had strong links, but it realised only after it changed its name that it risked losing that very valuable connection with its supporters. They are now trying to rebuild that. I was able to help them at Lambeth Palace."
At Christian Aid, too, he is part of a serious attempt at reconciliation with the Christian grass roots. "By overlooking them, to appeal to new supporters, we have been cutting off our nose to spite our face," he says. "They are a ready-made supporter base. Why alienate them? Why would we want to do that? And no, there's been no debate about changing the name."
No loss of nerve there, then. In his vision of more assertive church charities, using the challenge of the public benefit test to demonstrate their worth to sceptics, a name change at Christian Aid would clearly be a step in the wrong direction.