Peter Stanford: Churches should speak up loudly against their critics

As the debate over whether the UK can claim to be a Christian country continues, charities with religious links should resist the temptation to keep their heads down, writes our columnist

Religious charities do outstanding and often unsung work in unfashionable areas, writes Peter Stanford
Religious charities do outstanding and often unsung work in unfashionable areas, writes Peter Stanford

There is an ongoing debate in the UK about the place - if there still is one - of religion, especially of Christianity, in the law, the state, service delivery and taxpayer funding, among other issues.

It has all sorts of aspects - some to do with schools, others to do with tax breaks and some the limits of free speech - and often it can be hard to see it all in the round. We prefer to digest things on a headline-by-headline basis. I can't promise to solve the issues in one column, but we cannot ignore it, because the overarching questions raised have a particular echo for charities and their trustees.

One thing is clear. The debate is not going to fade away any time soon.

Indeed, the question of whether the UK can claim to be a Christian country is set to be an election issue, with David Cameron's recent remarks about us being "fundamentally Christian" regarded by some as part of his attempt to reclaim territory on British values and identity from Ukip.

In such troubled waters, there is a temptation for charities with any sort of religious links or associations to keep their heads down. They recall the unhappy experience of the Catholic adoption agencies a few years back. Going about their work quietly and effectively, especially with hard-to-place youngsters, they found themselves in the spotlight, caught between two competing political agendas - one that placed the highest premium on removing discrimination in all its manifestations (in this case, the Catholic charities' refusal to work with same-sex couples wanting to adopt) and another that defended traditional religious freedoms to disagree with the consensus.

The former prevailed, and some of the charities affected closed; others reformed to have much looser ties with their sponsoring churches and - the saddest consequence of all - fewer hard-to-place children got adopted. Perhaps, though, that loosening of ties - regretted as it will be by many believers and with an impact on funding from the church plate - could point a way forward. As we become more secular, scientific and sceptical as a society, those religiously based charities that want to continue their outstanding work for everyone, regardless of belief - and, crucially, with the financial support of the state - might have to explore more arm's-length arrangements with their churches. Charities could end up in a relationship similar to that which quangos have with government.

A step too far? Even an injustice? Not for me, but it would mark a shift. It used to be sufficient for an organisation to be religious in name and constitution for it to get charitable status. Religion was seen as being of public benefit per se, but such a claim is no longer taken as read. Since 2006 there has been a higher level of scrutiny. As a cradle Catholic and still (just about) a church-goer, I can understand why this pressure on religious organisations to justify their claim to be charities can stick in the throat. I hear some in Christian organisations suggesting that the Charity Commission is against them. Not true, of course.

But surely the best approach is for religious charities not to resist justifying the charitable nature of what they do, but to speak up loudly and meet the critics head on. I recently heard a radio debate about food banks. Many of these are run by church organisations, but a secular commentator said that compassion, justice, altruism and doing the right thing by others were not uniquely religious virtues.

Ah, replied the Anglican bishop in the same studio, that was the case, but the fact remained that in many deprived areas the people working at food banks were from church and religiously inspired organisations.

If we make it harder for such organisations to achieve and maintain charitable status, as some would like, something valuable is in danger of being lost.

So let's skip the theory and the high-flown rhetoric and concentrate instead at the practicalities. Religious charities, by and large, do outstanding and often unsung work in unfashionable areas. That, I believe, is where Mr Cameron's remarks should really be focusing our attention.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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