Faith communities are part of but different to the voluntary sector. Religious groups can challenge our professional values such as being non-judgmental when it comes to issues like abortion, homosexuality or divorce. How much reliance should we place on the views of religious leaders when consulting communities? How do we square the funding of separate services for different faiths with the promotion of community cohesion? And are we clear about the distinction between race and faith when it comes to providing services for minority communities?
Although religion can lead to divisions within communities, discrimination is still the biggest obstacle to social cohesion says Blair McPherson
The government has recognised the importance of the faith community as providers of social care services and as partners in promoting community cohesion. Working with faith communities is different to working with other sections of the voluntary sector. Religious groups can challenge our professional values such as being non-judgemental when it comes to issues like abortion, homosexuality or divorce. Religious groups talk of making our towns and cities “good” as opposed to “better” they refer to “spiritual social enterprises” and they refer to “sin”. So, how should local government respond?
The faith sector represents a significant section of society, and has an important role to play in community cohesion, especially in engaging with minority communities. According to Lancashire Faiths’ Forum, one million people in Lancashire “identify” with Christianity out of a population of 1.4 million but is this a notional link? It is certainly not reflected in church attendance and would these notional Christians be happy to be represented by their local vicar or priest?
Is this different for other faiths? In Lancashire 66,000 people identify with Islam. Can we assume that Lancashire’s Muslim population is happy to be represented by its religious leaders? Just as in Christianity there are different denominations such as Protestant and Catholic, Muslims divide into Sunni and Shiite so we know neither Christians nor Muslims speak with one voice. What are the implications for consultation and fostering community cohesion?
Is the faith community motivated by providing good inter-faith relations as part of community cohesion or does it come together to act as a pressure group for funding faith-based services such as faith schools? The faith community is part of the voluntary sector, part of the third way that the government is encouraging as an alternative to the private and public sector. Just as the voluntary sector joins together to lobby for more secure funding and increased funding to provide services, why shouldn’t the faith sector do the same?
Increasingly the faith sector wants funding to run spiritual social enterprises – services that are faith-based – that support and promote the values of a particular faith. For example, take faith schools. Recently Jewish, Muslim and Catholic religious leaders have argued in favour of separate services for “their people”. How does this square with the local authority’s responsibility to promote community cohesion? Rather than people living in separate communities and leading parallel lives, alongside each other but never mixing, community cohesion is about creating opportunities through work, school and leisure for bringing people together – giving them the opportunity to mix and therefore to dispel myths and challenge stereotypes.
We now seem to be defining ethnic minorities by their faith whereas previously we did it by colour or place of origin. Previously we talked about providing services to the black and ethnic minority community we referred to the Caribbean, the Chinese or the Pakistani community, now we talk about the Muslim community, the Christian community and the Jewish community.
When it comes to service provision we need to recognise the difference between issues of race and faith. The local authority provides services that are culturally sensitive not faith-based, that is, services which take account of the fact that people from different ethnic backgrounds enjoy different food and different activities. For example, day centres for Caribbean elders provide goat curry, rice and peas, boisterous games of dominoes and an opportunity to indulge in the passion for cricket.
In contrast a Chinese day centre offers sweet and sour chicken eaten with chopsticks, a serious game of Mah-Jong and an opportunity to watch horse-racing. Of course there are significant differences between people who come from different Caribbean islands depending on their colonial history, just as there are big differences between Chinese people who come from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.
While food, language and leisure bring these ethnic groups together faith groups come together due to their religious beliefs. A Jewish, Muslim or Catholic centre may also offer food and drink and the opportunity to socialise but this is delivered within a faith context which reinforces people’s shared religious beliefs.
It is not solely religion or faith that determines whether a Muslim women wears a burqa, it’s more often culture. How else would you explain different practice between Muslim countries and between Muslim communities. In developing day services for Asian elders there are communities where they find it perfectly acceptable for Muslims and Hindus to attend the same centre, but a few miles away not only is this not acceptable but Muslim men and women must have totally separate facilities to ensure that they do not mix.
In providing services to a diverse population it’s important not to make assumptions on the basis of religion/faith. It is important to be sensitive to cultural differences. What this means is taking the time to consult with people in the local community to ask how they want their needs met. Community engagement at a neighbourhood level involving local people in how local services are delivered and developed is considered good practice irrespective of the ethnic or religious make-up of the local population.
The biggest barrier to community cohesion is discrimination, for example, if some sections of the community suffer higher unemployment, poorer housing, and lower incomes if they suffer abuse and feel unsafe. Also, if they are treated as outsiders – this may be as a result of their race, faith or as in the case of the gay community, sexuality.
Blair Mcpherson is director of community services at Lancashire Council. He is also chair of the ADSS north west equality and diversity group.
Training and learning
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● Faith Representation: Church Urban Fund
● Our Towns and Cities: The Future – Delivering an Urban Renaissance, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2000
This article appeared in the 25 January issue under the headline “Does faith divide us?”