Can faith groups help deliver the Big Society?

Is there room for religious groups as players in the Big Society, asks Jeremy Dunning. Yes, says the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, but only with caveats

Is there room for religious groups as players in the Big Society, asks Jeremy Dunning. Yes, says the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, but only with caveats

The Pope’s arrival in the UK this week coincides with a renewed debate over churches’ role in the provision of social care and other welfare services. The reason is the government’s Big Society agenda to promote volunteering and encourage community groups, including faith groups, to take greater responsibility for running public services.

In July, faith leaders met communities secretary Eric Pickles to discuss how they could extend their role in areas including older people’s care, as part of the Big Society.

A larger role for religion in social care is controversial. In a recent debate on Community Care’s online forum, CareSpace, some social workers pointed to the profession’s roots in Christianity, while others warned that religious groups would impose their views on service users in a way that undermined good practice.

However, a problem for faith groups is whether they can afford to take on an extra layer of work over and above the levels of care and support they already provide without additional funding. Many fear their existing state funding will be severely cut over the coming years of austerity.

The Church of England’s Diocese of Oxford provides a typical example of the current role of religion in care and support, with dozens of voluntary groups providing services from night shelters for the homeless to street pastors. The pastors provide a listening ear for young adults marginalised from society and also help by signposting them to the relevant agencies. Their role is not to preach or evangelise, nor are they trained youth workers.

“The line we take is we are a signpost,” says David Law, street pastor area co-ordinator for Wantage and Grove. “We are there talking to people whom we come across and then perhaps we want to point them towards professionals. Although we have training, we are not professionals.”

He says there is no desire among the street pastors to go beyond this role.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, says the Church of England will look to become involved with the Big Society agenda, but there are limits to how far it can go in providing intensive services that need greater professional input – at least not without extra funding (see right).

“We are in part able to pick up slack, but we aren’t pretending to be the NHS or social work departments,” he says. He points out that the Church of England is also facing financial difficulties of its own.

On the concerns about the role of religion in social care, Pritchard adds: “It is not for us to force religion on anyone.”

One academic involved in social work and spirituality raises another question about whether it is right for these groups to become closer to the state.

“Voluntary groups can’t be completely mainstream because they might be saying something challenging to society,” he says.

However, Martin Cheeseman, director of housing and community care at Brent Council, says commissioning faith groups allows councils to ensure need is met but at less cost, providing a way for authorities to manage impending cuts.

His approach would be to commission services from them as long as they meet required standards and do not impose their faith on clients.

“Sometimes voluntary sector organisations, properly run, can deliver services in a more flexible way,” Cheeseman says.

The potential for church and other faith groups to play a greater role in social care and welfare services is certainly there, as is the willingness. But with councils facing cuts of 25% or more over the next four years, the funding may not be.

This may be a stumbling block for the Big Society.


 Andy Harbour, a client at the Gatehouse in Oxford, where religion forms no part of the provision


Shelter with religious roots keeps prayer off menu

The Gatehouse is an Oxford-based charity that provides food, shelter and company to the city’s homeless and poorly-housed population.

Most clients who use the service have mental health problems or addictions to drugs and alcohol. However, it is not a specialist service and instead acts as a signpost.

“We provide a listening ear,” project director Andrew Smith says.

The project was founded by the Oxford city churches as a winter daytime shelter in November 1988 and grew into a community centre for the client group. It is a six-day service, open two hours each day.

The service, which caters for 75 people on average each evening, is volunteer-led with about 200 helping regularly with serving and preparing food. There is also the equivalent of two-and-a-half paid members of staff.

Religion forms no part of the provision and staff and volunteers are reminded not to proselytise.

“We are quite scrupulous about not presenting ourselves as being religiously inspired because people have had such damaging experiences,” Smith says.

“I’ve heard about one recently where people don’t have a meal until they had been to prayers.”

Funding comes through a variety of sources, mostly voluntary, but it also received a city council grant worth £10,000 for this financial year. The council did consider cutting the grant this year, though this did not happen in the end. However, future funding is at risk as government cuts to councils deepen next year.

Though this grant totals just 10% of overall funding, and income from trusts appears to be increasing, the potential cut has raised doubts in Smith’s mind over the Big Society agenda.

“I’ve not seen any signs that the new government is putting in resources to community groups. The expectation is they will be doing more with less,” he says

 The Rt Rev John Pritchard: “Faith groups can offer stable, committed volunteers”

Faith groups must not pretend to be social workers

Christians have always had a vision of Big Society but we’ve called it the Kingdom of God, writes the Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford.

It was the churches that started the first hospitals, schools, social welfare charities, hospices, homeless shelters and so on. It’s the churches’ core business. But can they do it today?

At a primary level it’s not a problem. Visiting the housebound and elderly, engaging with young people, setting up networks of “flu friends” – all that is business as usual. Secondary-level activity isn’t too difficult either. There are credit unions and food banks, street pastors and night shelters all over the country, run by the churches and other faith groups.

It’s at tertiary level where things become more complex because a more sophisticated professionalism is needed and we run into problems of regulation and irregular funding. However, in the Diocese of Oxford, we have respected organisations working in counselling, adoption, homelessness, mental health, the empowerment of women and lots more.

But does this add up to what David Cameron envisages? It depends on the nature of the contract he wants to make with the faith communities. If there’s a desire for partnership and guaranteed funding support, then there’s a wealth of experience and good will to tap into. But if we’re being asked to pick up a mess because the government has run out of money then it’s likely to be no deal.

Faith groups can offer stable, committed volunteers all over the country. They offer compassion, experience and stickability. But they can’t pretend to be the NHS or a social work department, nor must they.

Do you think religion should player a bigger role in social care? Have your say on CareSpace.

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