Having been working at FaithAction for over a decade, I sometimes have to remind myself that not everyone knows of and appreciates the amazing things that faith groups do, day in, day out.
When the APPG on Faith and Society commissioned the report, Keeping the Faith, on faith communities and local councils working in partnership during the pandemic, it was apparent that many in local areas were pleasantly surprised when faith communities stood in the gap of public services, delivering food, visiting the isolated and facilitating the vaccine roll out.
It really should not be a surprise how integral faith is to civil society. We have so many faith-related institutions, charities and foundations, the most obvious being faith schools. In some ways the surprise is amusing, but it’s also a concern, as it means that faith is often towards the back of the queue of those who are consulted and involved in state responses.
After a little delay this government formed the Places of Worship Taskforce in 2020. This group served alongside other roundtables with faith leaders, and the project we ran feeding grassroots voices into government. The goal was to sense check and influence policy on guidance for worship practices, and to attempt to avoid particular pit falls.
FaithAction is also member of the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance, we are the faith voice on this partnership, and are contracted to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE/I). There are no other standing groups like the Alliance, and it is a vital link not just between faith and the health sector, but also other parts of government. DHSC has benefited from this long-term relationship with faith and other communities, meaning there is an increasing regard for the ‘faith and belief factor’ in policy design.
The Taskforce and the Alliance are important points of contact, but ultimately it is not these groups which are most important, but the results which stem from them.
We don’t want faith to be the ‘afterthought’ phone call when an issue hits, we want it to be at the top of the call sheet. There should not be a surprise at what faith does to deal with emergencies or deep-seated issues in UK society, but a real expectation borne out of real relationship and regard.
Faith should be at the top of the call sheet not because we are facing an emergency, but because it is on the ministerial and departmental ‘favourites list’.
To use military analogies – government should have a ‘standing’ relationship with faith organisations, faith leaders and faith infrastructure. Not have to do sudden recruitment or conscript help.
As the government turns to the British public this week to ask homeowners to take in Ukrainian refugees there is no doubt that faith communities will once again be at the forefront. The UK refugee response, which has been criticised as slow to get off the ground, may well have been aided if faith reception centres had been resourced and utilised as a staging post to get people into the UK ahead of settlement.
In all of these situations it is the faith infrastructure and ‘faith capital’ which seems to be what government comes to appreciate, but then seems to neglect and forget.
Unlike some commentators on faith communities, I do not advocate that all this resource is available without cost. Volunteering does not appear for free! There must be some investment, often in terms of social capital and, more often than not, in the infrastructure that recruits, trains and manages the volunteers. But the social return on investment is immense.
The government needs to relate to faith and, out of that relationship, there are considerable benefits, both in times of emergency and recovery. So our message to government is – work with us, you’d be daft not to!