Faith-Based Debate Stirs Britain

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Leicester, England—President George Bush's enthusiasm for enlisting faith groups to deliver more government-funded human services is spreading across the Atlantic. As the United Kingdom gears up for an election this month, political leaders are cozying up to faith groups and promising them an expanded role and a larger slice of public funds.

Conservative opposition leader William Hague - influenced, like Bush, by "compassionate conservative" theorist Marvin Olasky of Texas - talks of "denationalizing compassion," promises to "get off the back" of charities and faith-based groups, and says he would create an Office of Civil Society to route more public money to such agencies.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labor Party is also influenced by American thinking, though in his case the academic flown over for think tank weekends in the country is Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone" and characterized here as "guru of community."  But Blair is the most overtly Christian prime minister Britain has had since the 19th century, and he too is out on the stump praising the work of faith communities.

His minister for youth, Paul Boateng, recently told a gathering of the Evangelical Alliance's Youth Network that their work is key to the focus of government policy and that the government wants to learn from them.            

But there are stark differences in how the issue is handled and debated in the two countries.

In the United States, Bush's plans have stirred controversy as liberals fret about separation of church and state, and conservatives fear that too much government involvement and bureaucracy will drain the vitality of faith groups.

The matter is less politically sensitive here. For starters, there is no constitutional issue. Church and state are not officially separated, and there has long been direct government funding of Church of England (Episcopalian) and Roman Catholic schools; now some Muslim and Sikh-run schools are publicly funded as well. Nobody would find it odd to see a religious group participating in a school assembly or helping with (compulsory) religious education classes.

But there remain concerns about a greater role for faith groups in social services and youth work.

Champing at the Bit

For one thing, the British public is predominantly wedded to a notion of a welfare state. While youth work may have had its origins in home-grown Christian movements like the YMCA and the Salvation Army, youth work that is funded and delivered by local government has been part of the social supports landscape since 1939.  In a country where even the most generous estimates put church attendance at 7.5 percent and falling (compared with over 40 percent in the U.S.), it is by no means clear to everyone that faith communities could or should bear the load.

(Nevertheless, youth work is one of the few areas where, at least in Christian and Jewish communities, there is a strong infrastructure in place that might enable faith groups to take an expanded role.)

 

As the United Kingdom gears up for an election this month, political leaders are cozying up to faith groups and promising them an expanded role and a larger slice of public funds.

 

Some evangelical groups are champing at the bit. The churches are largely devoid of young people, so they must go out to find young people where they are. Groups like Oasis Trust and Youth for Christ, while still predominantly pursuing traditional methods of contact, are keen to take more of a role in the community. Oasis Trust is advertising for more mentors to work with young people excluded from school, and has a team of speakers going to churches and schools.

Trust founder Steve Chalke is well known as a "TV Reverend" (though in a very British way - we're not talking Jerry Falwell here). He recently launched Faithworks, a campaign to highlight the "positive and transforming nature of faith in local communities" and keep the pressure on government to end "discrimination" against churches. Echoing President Bush, the campaign calls for funding "based on outcomes" and calls on the incoming government "to ensure faith-based groups are actively supported in their community welfare, rather than treated with suspicion or even outright discrimination." Faithworks claims that nine out of 10 churches would set up more projects if they felt government support would be more forthcoming.

Chalke's profile helped him gain access to breakfast meetings at 10 Downing Street. Chalke has been accused in the liberal press of disparaging state employees as "clock-watching time-servers" compared with his motivated believers.

 

 

Who Does More?

The secular youth work field is not convinced that faith groups should play a bigger role. "Young people should have a diverse range of opportunities in any given locality," says Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, a public body serving all sectors of youth work in England. "This country is a secular state that also believes that properly supported faith groups can do good things. But I don't believe that we can turn over budgets to them and they'll get on and do the job.

It won't be pluralistic, especially when it comes to areas such as sexuality and teenage pregnancy."

Wylie is keen that faith-based groups should have to meet the same standards laid down for other providers to get public money: "If they want public sector support and recognition then they must meet our requirements, including our statement of ethical conduct in youth work with its principle of respecting and promoting young people's right to make their own decisions and choices."

Eric Finestone, deputy director of Makor-AJY (formerly the Association of Jewish Youth), believes the faith-based organizations are not only willing and able to do more but can out-perform public agencies (usually called "statutory provision" or "the maintained sector"). He speaks with some credibility, having been principal youth officer for the London Borough of Barnet. Much public provision, he claims, pays only lip service to key concepts such as youth participation. 

 

In the United States, Bush's plans have stirred controversy as liberals fret about separation of church and state, and conservatives fear that too much government involvement and bureaucracy will drain the vitality of faith groups.

"In Jewish youth work we have a number of different movements that are run with, by and for young people, run totally democratically with officers elected by their peers who determine their own programs," he says. "We do a lot more of what the government says should be done."

Typically, the statutory sector may do more targeted work with disadvantaged and disaffected young people, but Finestone is furious at what he sees as the imbalance of government financial support when faith-based and other nonprofits work with so many young people. "When you look at the reach we have, and the numbers of people working for us, the lack of resources is deplorable. In this respect the efficiency of the maintained sector is pitiful. There is a whole area that can produce the goods and with a fraction of the resources."

Finestone is heartened by the noises coming from politicians, but worries that it's just pre-election rhetoric.

Cheap Alternative?

The feeling of a neglected sector whose time may be about to come is widespread among faith groups. Christian youth work has expanded rapidly in recent years and English churches now employ more than 7,000 full-time youth workers, twice as many as the statutory sector. Increasing numbers are trained and qualified to the nationally recognized standards required for statutory sector jobs. Several Christian training institutions, such as Moorlands College in Dorset and the four sites of the Centre for Youth Ministry, have been endorsed by the National Youth Agency, which accredits mainstream courses in youth work. This implies that Christian youth workers are now increasingly as skilled in group work, inter-agency work, anti-oppressive practice, etc., as they are in Bible study.  This is probably essential, because government money increasingly comes with requirements regarding certain programs and outcomes for young people.

Aside from the usual promises to "cut red tape," there has been little debate here over exempting faith groups from regulations, as there has been in the U.S. Faith-based agencies are broadly expected to meet the same requirements as everyone else. But like their American colleagues, faith-based and secular youth workers co-exist in Britain but rarely work with each other.

 

While youth work may have had its origins in home-grown Christian movements like the YMCA and the Salvation Army, youth work that is funded and delivered by local government has been part of the social supports landscape since 1939.

 

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the new political mood is tempered with concern. "There are two tensions at work here," said John Buckeridge, editor of the Christian magazine Youthwork. "There are lots of church organizations that could be providers, and on the one hand they are pleased that central government is making the right noises. On the other hand they do not want to be used as an excuse by government to withdraw funding. There is a suspicion that they may be viewed as a cheap alternative."

 

Christian youth work has expanded rapidly in recent years and English churches now employ more than 7,000 full-time youth workers, twice as many as the statutory sector.

 

Like his U.S. counterparts, Buckeridge acknowledges that there are examples of poor practice in Christian youth work, but insists the vast majority is good quality work primarily geared to genuine community improvement, not proselytizing.

"What Bush, Blair and Hague have seen is that in some areas - especially those such as drug rehabilitation - projects have a very high success rate when they tap into spirituality," Buckeridge says. Whatever this force is, it can be an extra motivating force for staff in a job that can be pretty horrible and not easy to stay in for the long haul."

"I, for one, think the level of statutory youth work funding is dismal and celebrate the fact that in many areas the two sectors are looking to work together in mutual recognition of each others' work," Buckeridge says. "At the end of the day, faith-based youth work is complementary" to public agency work. "It's not a replacement."