Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Sunday, 8 June 2008 17:02 UK

Ministers 'ignoring Church role'

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News


Parish church
The church's valuable role is being ignored by ministers, says the report

A report commissioned by the Church of England will accuse the government of marginalising the Church.

The report - by the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge - will say ministers are failing to understand the Church's role in providing social services.

It will also accuse them of favouring Islam and other religions, and paying only "lip service" to Christianity.

It will conclude that the government is "religiously illiterate" and knows very little about the Church's work.

The Bishop of Hulme Stephen Lowe, spokesman on urban affairs, told BBC Radio Four's Sunday Programme that the Church was far and away the biggest voluntary organisation in the country, and had been for centuries.

Referring to the number of churches and clergy in parishes, Bishop Lowe said: "The Church of England is in every community up and down the country.

"There are 16,500 'outlets', so to speak. We have 10,000 people on the ground - in every community.

"There are millions of people volunteering, going through our buildings."

Chaplains

The bishop said the Church was providing help and support to groups as diverse as elderly, homeless and unemployed people, drug addicts and asylum seekers.

It also provides hundreds of chaplains to hospitals, prisons and the armed services, and thousands of schools, he said.

However, the report, published on Monday and entitled "Moral, but no Compass", said the government showed a "significant lack of understanding of, or interest in, the Church of England's current or potential contribution in the public sphere".

The researchers - who got responses from 70 bishops and interviewed government officials - were told that ministers had decided to focus their attention "almost exclusively" on Muslim organisations and those of other minority religions.

When asked what they knew about the Church of England… nothing, absolutely nothing
Bishop of Hulme Stephen Lowe

Bishop Lowe said: "Researchers went in to [government] departments to interview staff there and said, 'What information do you have about the Muslim community?' and there was a massive amount of mapping and information available about Islam in this country.

"Quite rightly in many ways, because there are major issues about radical elements in Islam which the government needs to know about.

"When asked what they knew about the Church of England… nothing, absolutely nothing."

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears denied there was a bias towards Muslim organisations.

She said: "It's just common sense. I would put it as simply as that.

"If you have a situation where you need to build the resilience of young Muslim men and women to be able to withstand an extremist message then of course you do that kind of work, but it doesn't mean you do it exclusively."

Minister for Religion

The report also suggests the Church is discriminated against in competition with private companies who provide welfare, which Bishop Lowe suggested was partly the result of a continuing process of secularisation under the Labour government.

It also calls for a level playing field for faith-based organisations including churches, and for a "Minister for Religion" to be appointed.

Bishop Lowe said the Church was not seeking political influence. The minister's role would be simply to improve the links between the government and faith-based organisations.

He said if the government wanted to benefit from the huge amount of work being done by the Church, it would have to change the way it dealt with it.

Politicians were criticised for their ignorance about the Church, but Bishop Lowe said the rhetoric from Conservatives suggested that they better understood the role Anglican parishes already played and how that could be expanded.

He said a senior figure in the party had suggested that the Church had the public trust that private companies sometimes lacked to take on extra roles, such as caring for people with dementia.

He said he had been told that "people would be more confident to think that the Church was looking after Granny".

But Ms Blears said in a secular democracy the government should retain overall responsibility for looking after disadvantaged people.

She said the poorest people could not simply be "handed over… to the Third Sector charities… and left to sink or swim".




SEE ALSO
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03 Apr 08 |  UK Politics

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