THE Government must do more to ensure fearful council officers do not stop churches and Christian charities from getting involved in social action, MPs have said.
The plans to roll out OFSTED-style inspections to all groups working with children were of particular concern to faith groups and those running Sunday schools. The comments came in a debate in the House of Commons last week initiated by the Conservative MP Fiona Bruce.
She paid tribute to the work done by Christians and others up and down the nation. “The value of these activities to society is vast. They represent a glue that holds together the fabric of our communities, particularly in many needy places.”
But too often churches experienced hostility and resistance from local authorities who were not sure if they could be trusted, Mrs Bruce said.
Surveys of Evangelical Christians showed that they were especially concerned about a perceived erosion of religious freedom and found it difficult to secure public funding for charitable projects.
“Faith groups do not expect funding for what is often called ‘proselytisation’, but they do ask to be free to be open about their beliefs and values,” she argued. “Local authorities would do well to improve their understanding of what faith groups do and the way that they work.”
Guidance from the Government about how to improve religious literacy and relations between councils and churches would be very welcome, she said.
“I ask ministers to think about how we can get the balance right, ensuring that there is the freedom of religion [and] that local church groups are confident that they can engage with local authorities, that the expression of their faith will be accepted and understood, and that they are able to exhibit it freely.”
The Labour MP Stephen Timms echoed Mrs Bruce’s calls, saying that nobody but faith groups would have been able to step up to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands who now relied on foodbanks.
“There is undoubtedly a new movement of faith-based social activism in Britain today,” he said. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, which he chairs, had drawn up a covenant that both councils and faith groups could sign to build trust between them, but take-up had been disappointing.
The Government’s “dreadful proposal to in effect turn OFSTED into a state regulator of religion” also came in for criticism from Mr Timms, and others.
Mrs Bruce said that there was nothing less British than restricting the expression of religious faith on the basis of vague and arbitrary guidelines issued by Whitehall civil servants. “There is grave concern on the part of many Christians across the country about these proposals, and rightly so.”
She urged her Conservative colleague James Wharton, a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who was present for the debate, to examine seriously the concerns Christians had that government policies were having a chilling effect on the free expression of faith.
The Labour MP Anna Turley also praised faith-based charities for their efforts: “Sometimes we take it for granted that when the state has failed — and we in this place have failed — faith groups are there to pick up the pieces.”
While other MPs joined her in paying tribute to faith organisations, they also warned of a growing secularism.
The Conservative Steve Double said that while he was delighted to hear the Prime Minister affirm that the UK was a “Christian nation”, faith was too often marginalised and “sneered at”.
“We often find that the place of Christians and the Church in our society is being eroded and undermined. There is a growing feeling that the work of the Church and its freedom to stand up for what it believes to be right and true are under attack.”
Responding to the debate, Mr Wharton said that the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, did not intend to force Sunday schools and other places where children were taught for only a short period of time to register for inspection.