The Church of England is to get £5 million for social projects related to the Government’s idea of the ‘Big Society’. The CoE will be responsible for disbursing these funds to other faiths.
A positive initiative?
In Cricklewood Blogger’s home turf there is a well-situated CoE parish church – St Gabriels. In his thirty-five years residency within a long stone-throw from this church he has only ventured once in its precincts. It was a pleasant experience, but the initiative came from the local neighbourhood association, rather than the parish priest.
He does not recall the local vicar ever inviting Maulana Jamil and his congregation at the Chichele Road mosque for tea and biscuits. The posters outside the Church are mainly proclaiming its evangelical alliances. Similarly, invites have not been forthcoming to the mosque on Station Road, off Willesden Green.
So why is our Coalition Government thinking that the CoE network of churches can build social cohesion?
The cynical Cricklewood Blogger first reaction is that this is a sweetener – after all there are now powerful Anglican Christian activists in the Tory Party – take Tim Montgomerie. After the 1997 election debacle, as part of a deal with the Party, he was given a desk and a telephone at Conservative Central Office to launch ‘Listening to Britain’s Churches’. He contacted 300 churches around the country to ask about their concerns. TM is now webmaster of the influential ConservativeHome website.
Another cynical streak in Cricklewood Blogger thinks that it is about showing there is some substance to the Big Society idea i.e. that it is more than a slogan masquerading as a concept (as aptly described by a letter to the editor in The Tablet recently).
A less cynical explanation may be that the Coalition Government is taking on board the recommendations of the All-Party Select Committee on the Preventing Violent Extremism Programme. After taking evidence and its own field visits, this committee concluded that:
- We are concerned that much Prevent money has been wasted on unfocused or irrelevant projects….
- Funding for cohesion work in all communities should be increased. That work should be done on a thematic basis and not on a mono-cultural or individual community basis..
Whether the CoE approached Government first to act as a replacement conduit for Prevent funds, or whether it was feelers from the Tories is not entirely clear. Suffice it to say that there was a conjunction of interests prior to the May General Election.
Canon Guy Wilkinson, National Inter-Religious Affairs Adviser for the Church of England and Secretary for Inter-Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury certainly made a subtle pitch while presenting oral evidence to the Committee in December 2009: “…one of the things we would say about the Prevent programme is that it has not really engaged other communities and neighbourhoods are made up of schools, churches, mosques and so on.I can think of some examples where the local Church of England parish is working with a number of other community organizations, particularly Muslim organizations.”
Early in 2010, anticipating their victory, the Tories sent two emissaries to see the CoE. The deal was struck: £5 million block grant to the Church Urban Fund for use in initiatives to build social cohesion through the parish and school structures of the CoE.
The positive aspect is that the role of faith organisations in building trust and human relationships of friendship and solidarity (social capital?) is appreciated. By singling out an institution – the CoE/Church Urban Fund – it also cuts away at Baroness Sayeeda Warsi‘s ridiculous statements that Government should marginalise ‘so-called [sic] stake-holder’ bodies (“My conviction is that in a stronger and bigger society the scope for people of faith to take their places as equals at the public table should become easier not just on so called ‘stake-holding’ bodies but as the vanguard of an increasingly decentralised civic society“).
The CoE, the Synod, the Church Urban Fund are not particularly decentralised bodies! Moreover they are stake-holding bodies – but Warsi would never have the impudence to refer to them as ‘so-called’.
The CoEís success will depend on the trust that it builds up with other faithsí organizations and representative bodies.
Moreover if the CoE wishes to act as the honest broker and gate-keeper to fund community capacity building projects, it might do well to listen to experienced and down-to-earth voices such as those of Dr Doreen Finneron of the Faith Regen UK.
There is a tendency for parts of the Anglican hierarchy to behave in a condescending and patronising manner – the white man’s burden sentiment. For the idea to work, a degree of humility will called for from the Public School types that are influential advisors to Bishops and still view Muslims as the ‘new kids on the block’.
With the exception of some Church leaders like the present Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the recently retired Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler, who came out against Tony Blair’s knee-jerk proposals for a regime of control orders for mosques, most bishops have been conspicuously silent on issues that really matter to the Muslim community – the rise of anti-Muslim groups such as the English Defence League, the obvious Islamophobia evident in the difficulties faced by mosques in obtaining planning approvals, the hijab and niqab issues, their disquiet over war crimes in Gaza and HMG’s lack of action…
How many bishops have come out in the open and challenged the outrageous views of the former Archbishop Carey – “the Muslim voice is very strong, so politicians and others are scared of it”?
Or the unreliable views of former Bishop of Rochester Nazir Ali “there has been a worldwide resurgence of the ideology of Islamic extremism. One of the results of this has been to further alienate the young from the nation in which they were growing up and also to turn already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas …It is now less possible for Christianity to be the public faith in Britain”.
What then is the CoE’s experience in promoting greater community cohesion?
The Christian-Muslim Forum may be cited as an example but its leading light is Philip Lewis, advisor on interfaith affairs to the Bishop of Bradford who it is believed also works as a consultant to the security services (via the University of Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies!)
Mr Lewis has been quick to stereotype: “Tablighi Jamaat does not try to engage with wider society so there must be clear worries that such a mosque [the East Ham project] would lead to a ghetto.The danger is that this becomes a self-contained world, which would be vulnerable to extremists.”
Not very good credentials if he is to have a star role in the scheme.
What Muslims in Cricklewood would like to know is exactly how the St Gabriels Church and the Bishop of Willesden are to suddenly acquire knowledge of the needs of other faith communities after decades of caring for their own flock only?
The angel (not the devil) will lie in the detail. How will they know how to reach out to the variety of groups – from the Deobandis who run the High Street bookshop, the Iraqi community’s centre off Anson Road, the two Barelwi mosques, the Islamia Schools, Yusuf Islam’s new youth centre.
It is not clear why the Catholic Church has remained aloof from this initiative. Is it because it sees Government funding as a poisoned chalice? The Catholic institutions probably have a stronger track record of reaching out to the disadvantaged – look at its work for asylum seekers or the minimum living wage for a start. The Catholic Social Teaching (CST) goes beyond anything to be heard in CoE pulpits. Their non-participation is ominous. (81)