Church charities can still evangelise (but not bribe)

by
18 December 2008

by Bill Bowder

Accomodating: leaving church doors open can be seen as beneficial to the public tournorfolk.co.uk

Accomodating: leaving church doors open can be seen as beneficial to the public tournorfolk.co.uk

PROSELYTISING is of benefit to the public, the Charity Commission has accepted, in its new guidance on what religious charities can do while still retaining their charitable status.

“In the majority of cases, prosely­tising is carried out sens­itively and without coercion, and does not pre­sent any public benefit difficulties,” the Charity Commission says in its guidance The Advancement of Religion for the Public Benefit, published on Wednesday.

This is a key concession at a time when charity law is being tightened up, and every charity must demon­strate that the public bene­fits from its work. Fears had been expressed when draft guide­lines were published (News, 9 November 2007, 7 March 2008) that evangel­ism and providing an oppor­tunity for worship would no longer qualify.

The new guidance suggests that most of what Churches and other religious charities do is consistent with their obligation to provide a public benefit. Pastoral work, chap­laincy, sermons, and the religious media generally, teaching religion, worship, and retreat centres are all consistent with the public-benefit test, which will start to be applied from March next year.

The guidance says: “Proselytising (seeking to convert someone to a faith or religion) is used by many charities advancing religion as an established and accepted means of attracting new followers or adher­ents. . . Christians regard evangelis­ing as a central part of their religion.”

But the guidance warns that charities could lose their tax-beneficial status if they crossed a line and offered “material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members of the religion”.

Charitable status would also be at risk if an organisation exerted improper pressure when it was proselytising people who were “in distress or need”. This is seen as an opportunity to strip charitable status from sects or cults that use coercion to attract new members or keep existing ones.

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Fears among some religious charities that they would have to develop their social work to be able to prove they were doing good proved groundless: “Charities whose aims include advancing religion do not have to undertake secular activities in addition to their religious activities in order to meet the public-benefit requirement,” the guidance says. If all they did was to provide a place of worship, to which access was not unduly restricted, that was enough.

Religious art, prayers, churches, gurdwaras, mosques, and temples, along with their meeting houses, halls, and meeting rooms for teaching, are all eligible for charitable status. Leaving a church open so people can wander in for spiritual contemplation has been accepted as “passive advancement” and of public benefit.

A general belief in miracles is consistent with public benefit, but advancing an unofficial miracle that is not backed by recognised religion and not capable of promoting the community’s moral or spiritual welfare is not a charitable aim.

UK-based charities proselytising in foreign countries where it is illegal to do so can continue as long as their activities would be legal in England and Wales. But charities need to assess the risk to their staff of such work: if it cause them detriment or harm, this could affect the charity’s public benefit.

The full guidance is available at www.charity-commission.gov.uk.

The full guidance is available at www.charity-commission.gov.uk.

Can evangelism be classified as charitable activity? Vote here

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