‘An absolutely vital role to play’: party leaders praise Church

14 April 2010

Steve Chalke of the Faithworks charity asked the leaders of the three main parties about the place of religion in their vision of society. This is a transcript of the interviews

Steve Chalke: What do you think the contribution of local churches has been historically in terms of com­mun­ity care and delivery?

Nick Clegg: Well, historically, going back in our history in places like this, in Birmingham, our own city of Sheffield, and up and down the country, the Church has played a pioneering role, a pioneering role in helping the most vul­nerable, reaching out to the forgotten, trying to address the entrenched poverty in Britain, not in this century, not in the 20th century, even before then.

So, I think the Churches have played an absolutely vital role in seeking to create a society of com­passion where the weak, the vulner­able, the forgotten, the ill, the sick, the elderly, are properly looked after with dignity and the right support.

Gordon Brown: I think the greatest of social movements in our country have been built on the strongest of ethical foundations. And it’s churches, faiths, voluntary organisations who spring from these faiths and Churches that have made such a difference to the quality of life in communities in every area of this country.

And I think of Action for Children, I think of Shelter, that have strong religious roots; indeed, these were organisations started by ministers of the Church. And I think of hundreds and thousands of people today who are involved in voluntary organisations because of their Christian faith.

And I think that, side by side with what an individual can do for himself or herself, and what government can do to bring forward services like the National Health Service, we need the spring that comes from the voluntary contribution of thousands of people who are motivated by their faith.

David Cameron: I think churches do a huge amount in our community, and have always done. I’m a great believer that we need the big society, not the big state. And if you think about what organisations in our communities have done the most to provide great schools, to help the homeless, to help some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our com­munity — the Church has always done a lot, and is still doing a lot, and, I hope, will do even more in the future.

So, as we look forward, what role do you think local churches have to play in building healthy com­mun­­ities for the future?

David Cameron: Well, good, healthy communities need good, healthy in­stitutions. And that’s not just the state or the local council: it’s those organ­isations in the community that people identify with — the youth club, the pub, the post office, and, of course, the church.

And the church should be active in the community, reaching out to people, encouraging them to help each other. And the best churches do exactly that.

Nick Clegg: Well, I think churches in many respects will have — and the community groups that work out of churches will have — an even bigger role, because you know, Whitehall can’t do everything. Whitehall shouldn’t try to do everything. And certainly my experience is, up and down the country, some of the best projects helping youngsters who might be getting into trouble.

I was out at the crack of dawn the other day with the Salvation Army, in the centre of Sheffield, looking at where some of the homeless men and women are sleeping, in the most unimaginably horrid circumstances: old deserted warehouses, broken glass everywhere, syringes everywhere.

And they [the Salvation Army] were out there, at four or five o’ clock in the morning, actually reaching out to the most vulnerable.

I think community groups like that can reach out to parts of society that often remain untouched by local au­thor­ities or governments in London.

Gordon Brown: Well, I’ve always said that faith-based organisations have got a great role to play, and that we should encourage faith-based organisa­tions, alongside other organisations, of course, to play the part in delivering community care, social services. In many cases, some of the services that are the newest of services have been pioneered by people from faith groups.

And if you look at the development of hospice care, or if you look at the development of care for under-fives, or if you look at the development of caring itself in this country, carers, so many of the organisations I know spring from religious foundations. And, therefore, we have got a duty as a government to encourage more faith-based services to be provided.

So, you are happy about the work churches do. What about your faith?

Gordon Brown: I think we’ve seen over the last few years that there is something way beyond markets, and way beyond the operation of govern­ments, that really does motivate people to do the things that they do.

And I think it’s people’s sense that they have a responsibility to other people; it’s people’s sense that they have a duty not just to their family directly, which, of course, they have, but a duty to the whole of the com­munity; and it’s people who see that they want to do to other people as they would do to them.

And I think it springs from that golden rule which is at the centre of almost every religion I know of, the golden rule that says you have got to be your brother’s keeper, your sister’s keeper, and says that you’ve got to be a part of a wider community, and serve it.

David Cameron: I think faith is im­portant. It’s important to me. I’m a relatively active member of the Church of England, and faith matters to me.

It’s a personal issue. But, I think, if you look across our country, if you look at our society, I think people do have a yearning for some meaning in life, and many people rightly find that through their faith — that we are actually involved in something bigger than our­selves.

Nick Clegg: I’m not a man of faith myself. My wife happens to be religious, and my children have been brought up as Catholics; in fact, they go to a very, very good faith school. And my view is that, in the same way, I hope that people will respect the fact that I have my own views, and they may not be the same as somebody else.

I equally think that people should be free to celebrate their own faiths and their own beliefs. But we’ve got to do that in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect.

Given the opportunity, what new partnerships and initiatives would you aim to set up to create a renewed and deeper opportunity for churches to be more involved than they are at present?

Nick Clegg: The Liberal Democrats are already in power across the country where the relationship between com­munity groups, churches, local au­thor­ities in public-service provision is crucial. We now run the vast majority of big cities outside London. We are in power in Birmingham, in my own city of Sheffield, in Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Hull, Edin­burgh. . . The list goes on.

And, in each of these places, we have been really innovative at saying to people who want to put something back into communities: “We want to work in partnership with you.” And that is very much the spirit in which we would continue to govern locally, and, of course, govern nationally if we were voted into office in the next General Election.

David Cameron: I want to see a big growth in faith-based organisations and charities. They do fantastic work already: helping the homeless, getting prisoners off drugs, teaching people how to read and write, running great schools. I think faith-based organ­isations have a huge amount to offer.

They are currently sometimes disad­vantaged, because some parts of the Government say that, if you are not a multifaith organisation, we won’t fund you. I think that’s wrong. I think we should celebrate faith-based organ­isations and say to them that, as long as you are not discriminating in terms of who you are helping, you can do more to help us build the big society.

Gordon Brown: I think, if you look to the future, what are going to be some of the issues? Climate change, ob­viously, and the Churches’ role in pioneering on climate change has been incredibly important, because it’s about our responsibility to the whole universe.

And then take Third World devel­op­ment — and, although we have done a huge amount, there is still a huge amount to do. It’s the Churches with organisations with people, mis­sionaries, or people who are doing other things, pioneering in the way we develop services for that.

And then if you take the internet and access to the internet and all that: we are going to rely on people who come together as communities and reli­gious communities to help people ac­cess these new forms of commun­ica­tion.

As people are able to talk to each other — and as people are able to communicate better with each other, and as people are able to connect with each other — what we are doing is in a sense what the missionaries did cen­turies ago and in the last century, and that is to build the global com­munity.

So, what we are actually doing by the values we hold that are shared with other people and by our ability to come together to work together: we are building what I think everyone wants to see, a global community where people understand each other, work with each other, care for each other, sup­port each other, and help each other.

A community is made up of thou­sands of acts of friendship, of help, of service to each other, of generosity. And that is what faith-based organ­isations can do.


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