News in focus: Boom time for Christian charities

Mathew Little

Fewer people are going to church, so why are there so many new evangelical charities?

Click on the 'our history' icon on the websites of many of the UK's best known charities this Easter and, likely as not, you will be greeted by the stern, black and white visage of a bearded, late Victorian clergyman.

From the Children's Society to John Grooms, NCH, Barnardo's and the Samaritans, many modern charity brands have their roots in Christianity.

Even Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson was inspired by his Catholic faith.

But new figures from the Charity Commission suggest that Christianity is far from simply a dim and distant part of the charity sector's heritage.

The number of new Christian charities registering with the commission has rapidly increased over the past 15 years.

Last year, 619 Christian charities were registered, 10 per cent of the total, compared with 177 in 1990. In the past eight years, 5,000 new Christian charities have been created, close to 3,000 since the start of the millennium.

This has happened despite a simultaneous decline in churchgoing - attendance at churches dropped from 6.6 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2005, according to the latest census.

New breed

Are the sector ranks being swelled by a new breed of evangelical Christian organisations, a red-blooded, moralistic influx quite different from the milk and water charities of the established churches?

"There has been a steady growth in the number of Christian organisations and charities," says Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents a million Christians and 700 Christian charities.

But he asserts that his members are not clones of radical group Christian Voice, which shot to fame recently because of its militant protests against the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer - the Opera.

"These groups are serving the community in prisons, helping the elderly, working with people with HIV and Aids," says Edwards. "They are ready to get their sleeves rolled up and give to the community without proselytising."

But overtly Christian charities have been criticised for exactly that.

The British Humanist Association, for example, says they exploit the vulnerable, such as the homeless or drug users, by combining assistance with religious indoctrination.

Edwards insists most evangelical organisations are "indiscriminate and impartial. That doesn't mean we won't offer people the teachings of Jesus and share good news, but we don't do it where it's not appropriate. It's not a bartering system - 'you don't get food unless you accept a bible'."

But the question of whether Christian charities should save souls or just fill bellies seems to be the point of difference between the new generation and the old. For the vast majority of established charities with a Christian philosophy, the idea that they might convert any of their beneficiaries is akin to suggesting to Tony Blair that New Labour readopt clause 4.

Christian Aid is the official overseas development agency of British and Irish churches. "We are proud of our Christian heritage; we are not Oxfam with prayers," says director general Daleep Mukarji. "But there is a bit of baggage, and there are aspects of Christianity we are keen to disassociate from. We don't want to be seen as a missionary organisation.

"We are not going to make new Christians, help only Christians or give jobs only to Christians."

Mukarji doesn't want Christian Aid to be tarred with the same brush as the American missionary agencies that flew into tsunami-devastated countries with a first aid pack in one hand and a bible in the other.

"They have misused their invitations and been insensitive to other people's faiths," he says. "We are embarrassed by that."

Mukarji still believes that Christian Aid should "show the love of God", but others dispute religion's exclusive claim to the charitable impulse.

Altruistic impulse

Hanne Stinson, director of the British Humanist Association, suggests that the altruistic impulse is as much a logical outgrowth of atheism as of Christianity. "Humanists believe that because there is no God, we, as people, have a responsibility to look after each other," she says.

And when it comes to modern charitable causes, such as human rights and equality, she asserts that religion can, and has, played a reactionary role.

"We have a commitment to human rights and equality that in many cases is stronger than religion's," she says. "Take discrimination, for example - on gender and sexuality, religion is not strong at all.

"Human rights are based on humanism, and humanists have played a key role in developing human rights legislation and UN declarations on human rights."

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