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We need to talk about the ‘p’ word.

Paul Bickley, Director of Political Programme at Theos, has written for us a companion piece to their report, The Problem of Proselytism, which was launched at an event at the House of Commons in October, and was co-hosted by FaithAction and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society.


In our research with the Church Urban Fund, published last year, we found that roughly 10 million people in England were using church or church-based community services every year. Faith-based services are amongst those being forced to step into the breach as the state is reshaped – the demand for church and faith-based social welfare services will be ever greater in the future. With a quiet revival in faith-based social action underway, perhaps supply will grow too.

This forces us to re-address the questions around terms and conditions. How does faith shape services which were previously delivered by allegedly ‘neutral’ state agencies? Are there things that faith groups shouldn’t do when providing public services (or even services to the public, if you see the distinction)? These are the questions which we attempt to answer in the report we recently launched at an event in the House of Commons co-hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society and FaithAction. That report is called, The Problem of Proselytism.

Why a problem? Because there’s a lingering suspicion that faith groups have mixed motivations. Faith-based organisations might seem to want the get people jobs or housing, but what they really want is for people to get religion – or so the argument goes. Meanwhile, on the supply side, these same charities and religious communities paradoxically feel that they are regarded with suspicion, and that they are under subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to downplay their faith-full character.

The suspicion that religious charities have the ulterior motive of looking for converts makes working with public agencies more difficult – and sometimes means it doesn’t happen at all. Ironically, fear around being seen as proselytising have often seen faith-based organisations avoiding talking about faith with service users altogether.

The Problem of Proselytism is an attempt to locate the debate in clearer thinking and evidence about the approach of religious charities and a frank appraisal of the anxieties of service commissioners. So we interviewed agencies working in the fields of homelessness, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, debt advice and education, with a view to finding out how being a faith-based organisation practically affected the services which they seek to provide, and we also spoke to people working in public agencies – local authorities, for instance, about the concerns they had about working with faith-based organisations.

What did we find? Well, first and foremost, that anxieties around proselytism are usually not rooted in concrete examples of faith-based agencies overstepping the mark. In fact, none of the commissioners we spoke to could articulate an actual instance of faith agencies proselytising while providing community services (although some could point to examples of local councils being ludicrously over-cautious about the prospect of working with faith organisations). In some public bodies – though no means in all – there’s just a sense that religion is too hot the handle. Where public services should be non-discriminatory and accessible to all (and since the Equality Act – that’s a matter of law) the assumption is that religious bodies could never truly deliver.

And the charities themselves? Well, unsurprisingly they refute accusations of manipulation, discrimination and coercion. Some will take their word on it – others won’t, but what’s more interesting in the variety of ways in which different organisations ‘kept the faith’ when providing services to the wider communities. For some agencies – for example, drug rehabilitation in the context of a Christian residential centre – there is no obvious way to subtract the faith from the service being provided. Their understanding of drug addiction was holistic, incorporating the physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual aspect of the individual, and the response to the problem should be equally holistic. Nevertheless, service-users were not obliged to convert in order to benefit from the work of the charity.

Other services were delivered by or in partnership with local religious congregations, still others by large faith-based organisations delivering public contracts in ways only implicitly informed by faith. In fact, such is the diversity within the faith sector that we argue that there’s a need to stop thinking in the binaries of sacred and secular. Instead, the report suggests the metaphor of full-, half-, and low-fat faith-based organisations. All approaches are legitimate, but present different challenges, and will involve different relationships with government agencies, including on the vexed issue of public funding. How does a ‘low-fat’ approach remain proactive in looking to people’s spiritual needs? How do ‘full-fat’ charities ensure that they have proper regard for the possible vulnerabilities of those they want to help?

Here, then, are our two key solutions to resolving the problem of proselytism.

First, religious organisations need to work on being clearer and more transparent about what they actually want to do. They also need, often, to use more mainstream language which demonstrates that in very many instances they’re goal is the same as other organisations of good will. There’s been endless work in the area of inter-religious witness, and it’s now time to do the same in the field in the field of religious social action.

Of course, many organisations have simply signed up to covenants or declarations which commit them not to proselytise – including the FaithAction covenant. This is a way of building trust with potential donors or partners. That’s fine so far as its goes, but where does this leave those who can’t sign up? We want to help start a conversation about what good practice across all organisations would look like. In the report, we set out how organisations need to have a balanced approach on issues like civility, diversity and vulnerability.

Where should faith-based organisations start? By being clear about what they want to achieve – what, for them, is success? Much suspicion breeds in the thought that agencies might be pretending to be one thing, while they’re actually doing another. The solution to this conundrum is not to downplay faith, but to be more explicit than ever, and absolutely clear around how faith will shape the service in question.

Second, we need to drop the word. As well as failing a plain English test, it’s used to mean so many different things that it’s hard to know exactly what a charity is ruling out even when it commits to not proselytising. When religious thinkers talk about proselytism they’re talking about manipulative or dishonest religious witness, but secularists frequently use it tactically – like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland – to mean whatever they want it to mean.

The language of proselytism doesn’t name suspicions, it breeds them. As long as it is the first word in the conversation between faith-based agencies and the state then the partnerships they build are unlikely to be as effective as they should or could be.