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St Martin-in-the-Fields holds interfaith hustings

28 June 2024

Faiths Forum for London

From left: the hustings’ chair, Laura Marks; Hina Bokhari; David Burrowes; and Sir Stephen Timms

From left: the hustings’ chair, Laura Marks; Hina Bokhari; David Burrowes; and Sir Stephen Timms

POLITICIANS from the three leading parties, all described as “deeply embedded in their faith culture and heritage”, engaged in an interfaith hustings on Wednesday in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

It was marked by what the Vicar, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, described as “respectful and profound discussion. . . There’s not enough of that,” he said. “It’s called politics.”

The panellists were: the Sir Stephen Timms who currently chairs the Labour Faith Champions; David Burrowes, director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and a former PM’s deputy special envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Hina Bokhari, Liberal Democrat, a London Assembly Member.

The main question posed by the nine major faiths represented was: how would an incoming government better engage with the faith communities, and how could those communities help to shape policies? The hustings followed an open Letter to an Incoming Government from Voices in the Faith and Belief Sector, published on Monday from the Faith and Belief Policy Collective, convened by the Faith and Belief Forum and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit (FCSU), Goldsmiths, London.

It proposes “a profound and strategic re-imagining of the role and contribution of religion and belief in British society. We seek a more flourishing and equitable future for all citizens in the face of unprecedented challenges.”

It continues: “The religion and belief landscape in Britain is now dynamic, diverse and hugely variegated. Minority faith communities are growing in number and confidence and are increasingly publicly visible. Whilst institutional Christian practice is in some areas giving way to more eclectic and personalised forms of spirituality and belief, for many of the growing numbers who identify as non-religious or humanists, interest in belief and ethics has never been so engaged.”

The collective wants to see faith and belief communities contributing to policymaking. It has recommendations on representation, including the equal and meaningful involvement of women, and opportunities for young people to feed into policies which have an impact on them; on protection, including reviewing legislation on hate crime motivated by hostility, and supporting the use of restorative approaches; and on trust in institutions, including strengthening the statutory obligation relating to the teaching of RE, Religion, and Worldviews in schools and colleges.

It concludes: “By pulling together we can stem [the] rising hate against minority faith and belief identities that continues to blight our nation; we can co-create innovative responses to the underlying conditions that sustain inequality; and we can rebuild the trust in our institutions that is needed for us all to flourish. We want to work with the incoming Government to realise this vision.”

Professor Christopher Baker, of the FCSU, referred to the partnerships between faith groups and local authorities which had been made during the pandemic. Both parties, he said, had “found they had to let go of some things for civil society’s good, and discover a partnership based on shared values”; a new model was essential so that partnerships could “go upstream” and shape policy ideas.

The letter, he emphasised, was “not a top-down communiqué or an attempt to provide an unequivocal answer”, but came from an emerging group of faith and belief organisations and individuals.

The moderator of the hustings, Laura Marks, referred to the Bloom report: the independent review of faith engagement, published last year, which concluded that faith was “an overriding force for good” (News, 28 April 2023). Little had been implemented from that review, and many had thought it too negative, but “at least it got us thinking about the relationship in a more formal and structured way,” she said.

Ms Bokhari was particularly concerned about the adverse effects of social media. “Our commitment to dialogue does not stop. If we have governments calling protests ‘hate marches’: that doesn’t help. We are in a bubble. We all know what we want to do. How do we reach those communities who are only seeing things on their phones, and don’t speak to their neighbours? We have to burst that bubble.”

Sir Stephen put a strong emphasis on making sure of good relationships between different faith groups. He deplored the withdrawal of money from the interfaith network as “an utterly, utterly foolish thing to have done. . . When different groups work together in actual practical collaboration, values are shared to an extent where good co-operation can be achieved.”

Mr Burrowes affirmed the vital importance of interfaith dialogue, but also of acting and being seen to act on behalf of other faiths when they were going through difficult times. The pandemic had meant close relationships formed between the faith leaders in the national crisis. The need was for better closer engagement all the time, not just in crisis.

All three politicians wanted to see the reintroduction of the “round tables” that had taken place during the pandemic. They wanted to see religious literacy resourced, through local authorities, government, and business; and the training and resourcing of RE teachers. Mr Burrowes made the point that dialogue must be mainstream rather than polarised.

There was reflection on the part played by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, which brings together UK efforts to promote religious tolerance abroad. Someone dedicated to promoting it within the UK was considered to be desirable, but it must be someone with a good understanding of the issues, panellists suggested.

“One thing the pandemic has shown us is just how big and important the resource within faith communities is, and government needs to work with that and engage with faith groups as partners,” Sir Stephen said.

Mr Burrowes said that “Too often the Government would look at faith as a problem issue rather than a solution issue. . . Thankfully, things have moved on, and there is now much more concern about the positive role of faith. [However] faith literacy needs to be extended right across government, both local and national, to everyone on the government payroll.”

Ms Bakhari felt that, “In some ways, despite all our efforts, when it really mattered, we failed as an interfaith sector in bringing some communities together. I say this because, despite many groups doing amazing work, we have seen a rise in hate crime in our city, [and ] that breaks my heart; so we need to strengthen our interfaith work and its future. The Government needs to stop the rhetoric that alienates different groups.”

Ms Marks concluded: “What we saw was the need to build thoughtful, values-based faith and belief voices into government and policy-making. After years of neglect by central government, our society would benefit from a deeper understanding of these communities who contribute way beyond their size, and yet are so often pitted against each other, excluded, or feared.”

 

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