Faith and Politics: Words from the Chair

Stephen Timms MP with Rob Flello MP Stephen Timms MP gave a speech in Stoke-on-Trent about the growing grassroots movement of faith-based social activism and the need for more partnership between politics and faith-based organisations and churches.

In September this year a special event was held in Stoke-on-Trent with guest speaker Stephen Timms MP, the Labour Party's Faith Envoy, on the subject of 'Faith & Politics'.

Stephen Timms MP Labour's Shadow Employment Minister and the MP for East Ham. He is chairman of an advisory group consisting of members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths, and is keen to continue fostering links with faith groups. This was his speech:

Stephen Timms: We're talking about faith and politics. When we start talking about that subject, what I think we're really talking about is hope because hope is at the heart of the Christian faith and hope needs to be at the heart of our politics as well - and very often it's hope that is missing, I think, when you look around the country and our politics at the moment. And in the Bible hope isn't a wishy-washy kind of hope that things are going to be better one day somewhere beyond the blue. Hope in the Bible is a down-to-earth, roll-up-your-sleeves, work-hard kind of a hope. Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, wrote what I think is a great book called "Surprised By Hope" and he puts it like this: that people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present - and that's what I think we can see going on in communities the length and breadth of the country.

A number of you I'm sure will have come across the Christian campaign Hope, which is about transforming communities under the influence of hope in Jesus: rehabilitation for homeless men in Manchester based on playing football together - just some examples from their website: a young girl asked why she was willing to give up a day to pick up litter in her area answering that it's because she loves God; a youth café run by volunteers in Bridgend wanting to help youngsters avoid drug problems that are all too common nearby; and one of the most encouraging things I think for people like me and Rob Flello at the moment is to see that hope also brings people into politics: people driven by hope in Jesus to make our communities a better place. If you look around the country today there is a very important new social movement which is blossoming - I know it's very clear here in Stoke-on-Trent - but I don't think its significance has properly yet been understood. It's steadily building, it's making an impact and it's a movement of activism whose starting point is faith in Jesus and hope in his resurrection. We're talking about a grassroots movement. There isn't a headquarters somewhere or some famous celebrity who's directing it all: this is a locally based, locally focused movement. It's rooted in committed communities, in churches, which are socially and culturally mixed groups in a way that's actually quite unusual in our society today. And this movement is rooted in worship - we're not talking about something that consists of activists who happen to have got a bit of background in Christianity - instead this has right at its centre the person of Jesus Christ and the activity of worship and that's what gives it vitality and energy and commitment. And it's a movement that's interested in changing individuals. It plugs away. It doesn't abandon failures even if sometimes it looks a bit foolish. It works in faith that human history is in God's hands and that one day what is clearly wrong and unfair today is going to be put right and I think this is one is the most hopeful developments around.

There's a great example of it on the website of "The Guardian" newspaper. They've got a regular columnist called John Harris, who describes himself as an unshakeable agnostic, and he visited the Frontline Church in Liverpool and he wrote this: "Evangelical worship gets many on the left hostile or awkward. So how do we respond to believers that save the destitute?" And there's a great video on the website that goes with his article and at the end he asks the woman who was a prostitute and a drug addict for years, now a member of that church, how the church helped her and the answer she gives - and I won't attempt the broad Liverpool accent in which this is given - but this is what she says: "Because they don't judge me. Outside they just look on me as a drug addict, they don't want to help you, they haven't got time, they're too busy with their own lives. Coming here people give their time and they just love me no matter what I've done. If you're struggling with anything," she says on this video, "go and find a church. It saved my life this church: I would be dead if it wasn't for this church - I know that a hundred per cent." And this reporter, John Harris, says when you see organisations like that church dealing so enthusiastically with social emergencies, it's very difficult to feel sceptical. And people very often say: You ought not to mix faith and politics. And if you do, they say, you're asking for trouble - and given the date today, 9/11, you don't have to work too hard to think of the kind of examples they might have in mind when they say that - and I well understand why people do say you shouldn't mix religion and politics. But I think nevertheless it is a mistake to say that because the truth is that faith is a great starting point for politics and what politics needs, I think perhaps more than anything else at the moment, is the input of people in this movement that I'm describing of faith-based social activism. It needs the values which are inspiring those things that are happening in Stoke-on-Trent and around the country.

I worked with the think-tank Demos on this report that was published last year. They called it "The Faith Collection" - I'm not sure it's a very good title - but exploring the role of faith in British society and politics. Anyone can download it free of charge from the Demos website - Demos has got no faith brief at all - but it highlights the extent to which, in modern Britain, religious faith is inspiring many of the most positive things that are going on around us. It draws on the European values survey, which is highly regarded, carried out every year, funded, I think, by the European Union, and they've pulled out some quite interesting information. For example, they make the point that volunteering is far, far more common amongst people who say "I belong to a religious organisation" than amongst those who don't belong to a religious organisation. The figures they come up with are that, when asked, about one in eight of the British population say, "I am a member of a religious organisation". But on quite a number of the categories of volunteering that they look at, there are more volunteers coming from the one in eight who say "I belong to a religious organisation" than the whole of the rest of the seven in eight who don't. The report looks as well at a number of organisations that are faith-based and providing public services of one sort or another around the country and the Demos researchers conclude from that that the faith basis of those initiatives is a very good foundation for a kind of modern public-service ethos, which in so many ways is hard to get hold of these days, but these organisations are delivering it. And it also found that these organisations are not biased in favour of members of their faith group in delivering the service and they're not aggressively out to convert people, which is very widely alleged about faith-based organisations, that they are doing one of those two things, and the evidence is pretty clear that it is untrue. And in an introductory essay in that report, what I've argued is that people whose starting point is religious faith are bringing to politics exactly the values that we need to make politics work: responsibility; solidarity, which goes with being a member of a congregation and being with others in worship; patience; persistence; compassion; truthfulness; tolerance: those I think are values which are very strong in faith communities and in much less widely around elsewhere. And that's, I think, the most telling reason why we do need, in politics, more people coming from a starting point of faith to bring those values with them.

One of the most striking examples of what's happening in this movement I've been referring to is the extraordinary growth of foodbanks over the last few years. I was noticing that the Stoke-on-Trent foodbank got some Lottery funding over the summer to double the number of outlets it's delivering from. I mean it's been an amazing growth: a million people thereabouts in the last year have been helped with food from one or other of the Trussell Trust foodbanks. Every single one of those is based on a church, with others from outside the church involved in leading them as well. You know, if we'd had a discussion like this five years ago and had asked ourselves what would happen if suddenly hundreds of thousands of people in the UK were unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I'm not sure we would have said, "Well the churches would step forward to meet that need" but that is actually what's happened. I mean a lot of people think the churches are finished, it's all gone, it's all history and it's all elderly people. Well, the reality - and it's a very important truth that needs to be understood about modern Britain - at a time when suddenly hundreds of thousands of families were unable to afford the food that they needed, it has been the churches that have stepped forward to meet that need. The churches uniquely have had both the motivation and the resources to help to plug that gap in the way that no other network or institution has been able to.

I'm the Shadow Minister for Employment and since 1997 in the UK, we've had a big focus on Welfare to Work - and I think that all three parties have been heavily influenced not so much by the US, where there's been a lot of welfare reform which has been very successful in reducing the numbers claiming benefits but not at reducing the number of people living in poverty, so I think we've been less influenced by that than by what's gone on in Australia. I was very grateful to the Salvation Army. I went with them to Australia this time last year to look at what's happening about Welfare to Work in Australia, because the number one specialist Welfare to Work provider in Australia is the Salvation Army. Number two is Mission Australia, which is a kind of descendant of the London City Mission, because somebody from the London City Mission went to Australia some time in the Victorian era and there were lots of changes but the ultimate result was Mission Australia - and I must say I think Australia shows very well the importance of church-based organisations being able to deliver public services in this area.

But in the West Midlands, the Diocese of Birmingham used to pick up the participants that nobody else would touch. In the previous Government's New Deal programme, which you may remember, introduced soon after 1997, on one occasion they were asked to find a New Deal placement for a young man who was due in court shortly to be tried for 117 offences of burglary and he was placed by the Diocese on a project to decorate a church complex in Edgbaston - and it turned out he was actually a very good painter and decorator because he'd been trained up in that skill while previously detained at a young offenders institution. But at Edgbaston he struck up a friendship with the part-time church administrator and when the time came for him to go to court for trial the administrator went along to speak up for him and to ask the court that despite all of these dreadful offences he ought to be given another chance. Rather surprisingly, I think, the court agreed. He was given another chance, the painting project was completed, apparently to a very good standard, and the young guy then went and started off, with a couple of others, a painting and decorating business of their own. And they had a ceremony to mark the conclusion of the work at the church hall and one of those who turned up was the young man's mother. She went up to the church administrator afterwards and she said this to him: "When you went to court to plead for my son to keep his job, you saved his life." And the truth is, in Britain, that there are an awful lot of people whose lives need to be saved in that way - and churches are doing that in a really powerful and effective way and what I want to see is that influencing and driving our politics in the future as well.

I am the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society and it's a group of parliamentarians from the House of Commons, House of Lords, all parties, who want faith groups to be able to play their full part in serving their local communities. We had a series of meetings in the group and we invited organisations from around the country to come and talk to us about what they were doing on a theme. So we had one about Welfare to Work; we had one about children and young people, because most youth work in Britain now is undertaken by churches; we had one about health and wellbeing; and we had a fourth one about overseas aid. And we heard from a very impressive range of organisations carrying out a fantastic quality of activity. But it was very striking that a lot of those groups said they had difficulty dealing with government and especially they had difficulty dealing with local government. I think it is the case that there is often in local councils, and on the part of officials and councillors, a fair bit of suspicion of church-based and faith-based groups and people very often suspect that there are those two things that the Demos report says are not happening, they suspect they are happening: that either these groups are biased in the way they deliver their service in favour of whichever the faith group is, or what they are really trying to do is convert people under the cover of the service that they are supposed to be providing. So we think this is holding back some really valuable contributions to communities that otherwise could be taken forward and would be supported by local authorities. What we've done is to draw up a covenant, which we envisage jointly being signed by a local authority and by the faith-based organisations in the area, in the hope of building confidence and trust on both sides and overcoming this barrier. It's not very long, I just wanted to read to you what we're saying.

Faith And Politics

We're saying:
"The coming decade will see the country facing new social needs and tough new challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, employment support and community inclusion. These challenges are going to require the identification of a new set of resources. We will need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute together towards solutions. We believe that one important resource can be realised by supporting faith-based organisations to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society with local authorities. That will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from, and transferring assets to, appropriately qualified faith-based organisations and that they include faith groups when they look for solutions to social needs.

"So the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society is convinced that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve and that some of their potential is being unnecessarily overlooked at present. To help tackle the problem, the group has drafted a covenant to be adopted by faith groups and local authorities. The covenant is a joint commitment between faith communities and local authorities to a set of principles that guide engagement, aiming to remove some of the mistrust between them and to promote open practical working on all levels together, built on the following principles: Firstly, faith communities are free to practice their beliefs and religious observances without restriction and to raise their voice in public debate and to be respected within the framework of UK law. Second, that public services and faith-based social action should respect service users from all backgrounds with no discrimination on the grounds of religion, gender, ethnic origin, marital status, sexual orientation, mental capability or long-term condition. Thirdly, that the voice, participation and solutions that faith communities bring are important and consultation should enable them to be brought to bear for the benefit of the wider community. And fourthly, that organisations and services are stronger for drawing on diverse sources of funding.

"So the covenant entails the following commitments: Local authorities commit to welcome the involvement of faith groups in the delivery of services and social action on an equal basis with other groups. In addition, local authorities commit to building relationships and trust with faith groups, adopting strategies for the engagement of faith communities in consultation exercises, encouraging faith groups and their members to be involved in the reshaping and redesign of local services, establishing clear guidelines around funding and sharing training and learning opportunities between faith communities and the local authority.

"For their part, faith-based organisations commit to work actively with local authorities in the design and delivery of services to the public. And in addition, faith groups commit to seeking opportunities to bring people together; to serve the community, particularly the poorest and most isolated members; serving all local residents seeking to access non-religious services equally without proselytising; using resources provided for delivering a service wholly for that purpose and not for any other; ensuring excellence in child protection, health and safety, accountability and transparency; responding to consultations where appropriate; and sharing training and learning opportunities between faith communities and the local authority."

So that's the covenant that we've drawn up and we've had quite a lot of interest in this. We've got furthest with the City of Birmingham, which is the biggest local authority in Europe, and they think - like every local authority they've got huge financial pressures and challenges ahead as austerity works through over the next few years - and they think working with faith groups in the city will be one of the ways that they can get through that. So the Bishop of Birmingham has been bringing together all of the faith organisations locally, Sir Albert Bore, the leader of the city council - and I'm hoping that this will be adopted and that it'll be helpful for them and for others as well.

I wanted to give a very different example. There was a newspaper article a while ago about the impact of Fairtrade on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. This was just after Sainsbury's had announced that they were going to be buying only Fairtrade bananas, 100 million per year of which were going to come from St Lucia. "Today," said the article, "the island, where bananas are not so much a crop but a way of life, is celebrating. Just about every St Lucian banana sold for export now commands the premium price and European supermarkets are queuing up for more. Money is going into run-down schools, the banana sheds are being repaired, the farmers can scarcely believe the turn-around in their fortunes."

Now, Fairtrade was started in Britain by Tradecraft plc - I'm the chair of the trustees of Tradecraft. Now at the time that started, nearly 40 years ago, the idea of supermarkets stocking goods on Fairtrade terms was frankly inconceivable. The change came about because Tradecraft was sustained by an army of committed volunteers who were willing to sell its products - and that is the reason why the Fairtrade movement first of all survived and then it prospered. Now, who are those volunteers? Well 80 per cent of them are from the churches. Fairtrade has prospered in Britain because enough people, frankly running church bookstalls, were willing to put a few Fairtrade items on the edge of the table alongside the books. Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that a bookstall in the corner in a draughty church hall was never going to make very much difference to anything - but actually that is the reason why run-down schools are being repaired in St Lucia. And, you know, that 80 per cent figure of the proportion of volunteers coming from the churches struck me because the organisers of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which you might remember around the time of the Millennium, the Make Poverty History Campaign: the organisers of both of those told me that 80 per cent of those who made up the human chains, who sent postcards to their MPs, who turned up at the great demonstration in Edinburgh for the G8 summit in 2005, 80 per cent of those also were from the churches. And the impact on our political culture and our market culture in Fairtrade, and therefore on the world, has been enormous.

I think there is today amongst people like Rob Flello and me, politicians, a new recognition of the importance and the value of faith in our society. Our society has enormous challenges ahead. We need people of faith taking advantage of this new recognition, working in their communities, contributing to formulating the answers just as happened very effectively in the past. And we need them to go further as well: we need people to get involved in politics, to join political parties, to work alongside others, to come up with our society's answers to the challenges that we face. When believers are involved in the lives of their community, worshipping, yes, and serving their community as well, they are bringing invaluable qualities in their service and those are qualities that modern Britain urgently needs. And it isn't just people of faith, like me and Rob and those who are here, who are saying that. There's a guy called Neal Lawson, who runs a left-leaning think-tank called Compass, who wrote a newspaper article a while ago, which I largely disagreed with because it was mainly a stinging attack on people like me who were ministers in the last Government. But the key point he made I did agree with and I think it's a very important truth about modern Britain and this is what he wrote:

"They don't just talk: they do. Religious communities are among the increasingly few places that bring people together as citizens rather than as consumers fighting for a living wage and against poverty. For me," he wrote, "as an atheist and a full-time politico, this is unsettling. I'm a secularist," he says, "I believe in the disestablishment of church and state. In particular," he says, "I want to see the end of faith schools. And of course religion has been the cause of terrible deeds, although none perhaps, in recent years, as abhorrent as those of atheists. But in words and deeds," he wrote, "in the world I see around me, the positive role faith plays far outweighs the negatives."

And I think that is going to be the view of a growing number of people looking around at what's happening in our communities, looking at the huge challenges that we're facing and some bad things that are going on. As they look around seeing that there are, in every community, people of faith, people who believe, who are worshipping together and also being active in their community. I think when people do that: when they look at what's happening and look at this movement, this growing movement of faith-based social activism, I think what they will see increasingly is a movement which is of enormous value today but of even greater potential in the years to come.

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