by Ryan Wise
In recent weeks there has been plenty of discussion in the social work community about the role of religion, and what part it can play in practice.
This was prompted by a social work student losing an appeal case against his university’s decision to expel him after he shared support for an American registrar who refused to give marriage licenses to gay couples on grounds of faith and said homosexuality was a ‘sin’. His appeal was on the basis that the university had unlawfully interfered with his rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
A piece written in Community Care on 6 November inspired me to reflect on my own perspective of being a social worker, a practice educator and a gay male. I think it is important to look at the relationship between social work and religion with an emphasis on when religious belief leads one to hold views possibly at odds with ideas of equality; namely same-sex marriage.
I am personally fascinated by religion and faith, I completed my undergraduate in religious studies where I was curious to explore the complexities of religion and the influence it has on society and people’s thoughts, views and behaviours.
I respect faith and belief and recognise how religion can be a drive to do well in the world. However, when it comes to views against same-sex marriage, I then struggle. Theologically, I must admit I am not au fait with the intricacies of teaching in monotheistic faith which indicates same-sex marriage as wrong.
Quite the contrary, my understanding is that most of the teachings focused on equality.
Right way forward
When confronted with these views, I do wonder if questioning why they are held is the right way forward. I don’t know for sure, but for me it is about understanding how one has come to this view.
It is key to explore such views and explore faith-based viewpoints more generally. I don’t propose questioning theologically, but adopting a curious approach to ethics and values which our profession holds at its foundations.
When I started as a practice educator I was informed on my first day that a high number of students on the University course held the view that same-sex marriage was at odds with their faith and thus possibly wrong. I struggled with this and, truthfully, I still am struggling. I was perhaps surprised as a view which opposed same-sex marriage was one I considered to be held by few rather than the many, like it was in this context.
I believe it is my role to encourage different thinking and curiosity. The example of referring to homosexuality as a sin is perhaps a clear red flag but what about the grey areas? The grey areas indicate that we can only consider each case in its own individual context.
Beliefs in social work
Perhaps it is about the individual person’s ability to consider their beliefs and values concerning same-sex marriage and reflect on difference. It can be argued that not agreeing with same-sex marriage is not the same as a homophobic stance, but again we have the issue of equality.
People have different beliefs, and often the question is how they can be put to one side to effectively practice in social work. I feel this is the wrong position to take and wonder why this is suggested. I do not think we can put our values and beliefs to one side.
We engage with difference all the time and we must engage with ourselves reflexively.
There is a difficulty when beliefs and values are at odds with equality, although this can be explored through the Social Graces. Devised by Roper Hall and Burnham, Social Graces represents aspects of difference in beliefs, power and lifestyle, visible and invisible, voiced and unvoiced, to which we might pay attention too.
The Social Graces have grown since their original development and currently represent: Gender, Geography, Race, Religion, Age, Ability, Appearance, Class, Culture, Ethnicity, Education, Employment, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, and Spirituality.
An important part of self-reflexivity is engaging with the Social Graces. Religion is only one of the graces, do you have specific ideas about people’s ages, or people’s class or race? Are we always acutely aware of what we think or believe? With so many Graces in play at any one time, should differences over religion and faith play such a prominent role in deeming what makes a person fit or unfit to be a social worker?
My point is that we all hold different views, ideas and beliefs and we must engage with ourselves in the reflexive process to question those.
For me it is no coincidence that in my colleagues’ article they mentioned the student in the case central to this renewed debate did not ‘demonstrate critical reflection or regret about his comments, showing little insight into how LGBTQ+ service users might experience such an attitude’.
Critical reflection is a process, a process supported and encouraged by good quality supervision.
I have learned that it is my role as a practice educator to engage with beliefs and values concerning same-sex marriage which are at odds to my own and develop curious thinking.
I am coming from a standpoint that one can hold views that are different, or be seen by the majority as ‘unethical’, and if they are willing to engage with their beliefs then they can practice as a social worker.
I am not saying this is a right or wrong view, merely pointing out there is a plurality of beliefs and values.
If someone is sharing beliefs or values that are outwardly discriminatory or oppressive then it is different to being opposed to same-sex marriage because you believe it to be at odds with your faith. If same-sex marriage is not compatible with your religious beliefs, what counts as ‘good enough’ engagement or reflection and do we have a standard to work towards to allow practitioners to start working with vulnerable children and families?
I think there must be a standard; it is for the practice educator or manager to consider that individual’s capacity to reflect and engage with the Social Graces; if there is evidence of little-to-no reflexive willingness or skill I would question how that person would be able to effectively encourage and empower children and families to change.
I have spoken a lot about what is expected of someone else, but there’s also a question around how I address my own views and my own responsibilities. I must be open and foster curiosity, creating a space for students to explore their thinking. I need to engage with my own approach. I respect religion, but I am not a religious person myself; do I think about this enough when working with those who hold strong beliefs and values?
Reflexivity is not just for those who have faith, or who may hold views we deem controversial, its for every member of the profession.
I recently attended a talk on Witchcraft and Spirit possession. Here I saw a particularly inspirational speaker who spoke openly about how, as a pastor’s wife and a social worker, she skilfully articulated how she negotiated challenges of faith and practice.
The reflexive skill showed was outstanding and left me feeling enthused.
We need to identify our own areas of development and realise that this is not an easy area to articulate or navigate. It is important to consider the culture of organisations and the profession, and how they can work together to bring out these conversations.
This is necessary, not only to ensure that practice is anti-discriminatory but also support practitioners to feel that they should not have to hide their faith.
Ryan Wise is an advanced social work practitioner in children’s services. He tweets @ryanwise18.