Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blears wants Christians to serve but not speak


Christian groups should only be able to access funding for social work if they promise not to evangelise, says communities secretary Hazel Blears.

Speaking at an Evangelical Alliance (EA) conference on Christian debt-counselling services Mrs Blears spoke of a new charter for faith groups involved in social work.

Under the charter, developed with the help of the Faithworks group, religious organisations will be offered public funding for projects serving the community.

But this money will, Mrs Blears said, only be available to groups “promising not to use public money to proselytise”.

During a Commons debate on the charter last year Mrs Blears said “many people are motivated by faith of all kinds to do great acts of social good”.

“However,” she continued, “I am concerned to ensure that if faith groups become involved, they do so on a proper footing – not by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way to the whole community”.

Her speech to the EA has been compared to a church sermon in some press reports, as Mrs Blears ‘preached’ to church leaders about how Jesus would have understood the pressures of the economic crisis.

She spoke of the “hope” which characterises the Christian life, adding that such hope could help society get through the “difficult path ahead”.

But Christian groups are concerned that the Government wants to use the services provided by Christian groups while preventing them from articulating their faith.

The speech comes in the wake of a spate of stories where Christians – often in caring professions – are facing opposition from local authorities over their beliefs.

These include a Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for a patient, a Christian carer struck off after a Muslim girl in her care became a Christian, and a Christian care home which lost council funding over its beliefs about homosexuality.

A spokesman for the Evangelical Alliance, Dr R David Muir, said: “The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.”

Mrs Blears said: “It’s not about trying to stop the people manning the soup kitchens, or making home visits, talking about their faith if people ask, or being open about what motivates them.”

She told the conference: “I don’t want to get to the place where the very thing that motivates you is stripped away. That’s self defeating.”

But Dr Muir said: “Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.”

The Bishop of Rochester recently wrote of the way the Christian foundations of much social care are being forgotten as Christianity is sidelined in many public services.

This is done under cover of concerns about offending people, he said, but was really driven by “secularist agendas which marginalise all faith but seem especially hostile to Christianity”.

Secularists have welcomed Mrs Blears’ plan to stop religious groups from evangelising if they are commissioned to carry out social work for the Government.

The National Secular Society commented that “hidden beneath the flattering and emolient words was a clear message: we need your help to run welfare services on the cheap.

“This message was also tempered by the announcement that public money would come with firm conditions attached”.

The Faithworks charter, which has influenced the Government’s plans, requires Christian groups who sign up to it to provide services to the community without “imposing our Christian faith or belief on others”.

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