What is the Link between Religion and Charity Today?

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Religion-20140724105436688The link between faith and charity was once taken for granted, but the ground has shifted in recent years.

One of the proudest boasts of the major religions is that, in shifting times, they are standing their ground. Come what may, they will remain true to beliefs that will not alter because of whim, utility, technical innovation or social circumstance.

So a major shift seems to be under way. As formal religious observation and denominational attachment decline in this country – especially in our national, established church – more questions are being asked about the role and responsibilities of religious bodies. At heart, many people nowadays see religion as the cause of wars and tension around the globe, and as an oppressive system at odds with fundamental human rights at home.

It might be a mistaken perception, but the question marks aren’t going away any time soon and, as a result, many people don’t want their money, especially their taxes, being spent on anything to do with religion. The rise and rise of a secular, scientific, sceptical society has therefore put faith-based charities, claiming tax advantages from the public purse, in the spotlight as never before. So is the link between religion and charity, once so instinctive, beneficial and taken for granted, now fracturing?

Some faith charities do feel nervous or under threat because they increasingly find themselves at odds with prevailing social and cultural norms. Many of those voicing such complaints point an accusing finger at the Charities Act 2006, which specifies that faith-based charities must be able to demonstrate that they provide public benefit. They have to be able to prove that they benefit wider society, whereas in the past the “advancement of religion” was generally taken as a good and beneficial thing in itself.

Degree of public access

Generally, it is taken for granted that religious teaching or worship is beneficial, so the question of public benefit turns on the degree of public access.

Those charities in the firing line, therefore, are likely to be the small number of closed religious groups – for example, ultra-Orthodox Jews – whose beliefs cause them to have as little interaction with the public as possible. Among about 32,500 charities on the Charity Commission’s register that are currently classified as engaged in “religious activities” (just under 18 per cent out of a total of 181,000), they are unlikely to bother statisticians. And the figures suggest that, far from being in retreat, religious charities are on the up, accounting for more than a fifth of charities (1,644 out of 7,965) registered since the start of 2013.

The fear of the regime introduced in 2006 seems, therefore, to be out of proportion to the reality. So why the panic?

Any sense, whether real or imagined, of being victimised might be found more among Christian groups, which are used to being in the mainstream of life in a country that is still officially Church of England, than among other minority faiths. The latter are perhaps more used to having been in a minority position and having to explain their teaching and practices to the Charity Commission and wider society.

‘Religions have nothing to fear’

It was the Labour leader and self-defined atheist Ed Miliband who in 2006, as Minister for the Third Sector, offered official reassurance that “religions have nothing to fear” from the Charities Act 2006 as he piloted it into law with its public benefit test. “Making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit,” he told the House of Commons in June of that year. And the following month, again at Westminster, he added another layer of reassurance. “It is my understanding that the bill will not fundamentally change the definition of religion as it will be applied by the commission,” he said.

Some, however, now believe he was being misleading.

Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of Aid to the Church in Need, a charity that helps persecuted and suffering Christians across the world, sounded alarm bells that the legislation raised the prospect of more state interference in religious charities. Although the 2006 act did not “immediately endanger” religious groups, Kyrke-Smith argued in The Catholic Herald newspaper, “it could be used as a tool to target certain charities. This might eventually come to mean that we, as independent charities, have to toady up to the government in order to retain our charitable status, in the way that some of the larger charities already do”.

The fear that hidden government agendas might somehow influence the way the Charity Commission operates might sound far-fetched, but in July Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said that there was a perception that the commission was “targeting Muslim charities in a disproportionate way”.  Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, the two largest Muslim charities, had spoken to him, he said, of their fears that the regulator’s recent actions were damaging the reputation of Muslim charities.

In response, the commission rejected any charge of bias. The overwhelming majority of Muslim charities are not politically volatile and have been set up by well-meaning people wanting to do good. But when they hear about other Muslim charities being investigated, they can all too easily adopt a victim mentality and start to fear that they are going to be next.

Golden era

In such a climate of suspicion, the temptation to hark back to a golden era before the 2006 act is understandable, but might be misplaced. Furthermore, the resented public benefit test should not be seen as causing trouble only for religious charities.

There seems to be a good deal of muddled thinking at present among religious charities because they focus too much on the potential threat that the 2006 act might represent, and not enough on bigger changes that are afoot. For example, one of the major challenges faced by charities – especially those that get funding from the public purse to deliver services – is being forced to conform to equalities legislation.

Loosening ties

The second part of that equation might be why some faith-based charities have, over the past couple of decades, been carefully loosening ties with their churches in order to appear more mainstream, more modern and less prejudiced, and to dodge some of those awkward secular questions.

There is a danger in making too much of this motivation. Other organisations have found that, by dropping from their names any mention of denominational attachment in order to court secular funders, they have alienated their natural constituency in the pews without finding anyone in the wider world to replace them. A return to the fold, therefore, makes good financial sense.

The 2006 act did lay down broader parameters for what constituted a church, but the Charity Commission has so far shown no inclination to assess the religious, as opposed to the legal, merits of an organisation – to act as judge and jury on what constitutes divine truth and what is mere hokum. It would be an unseemly spectacle and would further damage whatever good name religion still retained in the public mind, and in terms of bringing benefits to any charity that claims to carry God in its shadow.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams

The “instinctive link” between religion and charity is, he fears, under strain as never before. “There is a lack of any sort of absolute assumption that religion is something good,” he says. “Too many people today instead see it as bound up in conflict, in politics and in struggle.”

It is that distrust, bordering on dislike, that is, he believes, the real context for the change that has required religiously based charities to demonstrate a public benefit where, beforerowan-williams1, their faith-attachment had been deemed sufficient. “I worry about the public benefit test,” he says, although he notes that many church charities meet the new test with ease.

One of the keys tasks, says Williams, is to look again at the vocabulary used, especially the notion of justice, which many church organisations have come in recent decades to prefer to talk about than charity itself.

Church organisations need to feel more confident about speaking up about what they do, he says. The public benefit test, in that sense, could be a positive encouragement. What they certainly don’t need to be doing, he believes, is shying away from their religious roots in order to try to blend in with the secular world.

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