Faith groups have a ‘sacred civic role’ in the pandemic

Image credit: Diocese of Norwich

By Ruth Peacock

Faith groups have performed a “sacred civic role” in the pandemic, delivering essential services such as feeding the hungry and comforting the bereaved, a Religion Media Centre briefing was told.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal said the faith groups were providing services that the government has not been able to fulfil through its social welfare mechanism, so they were filling the gap.

She said that services such as the langar meals provided by the Sikh communities would continue, despite the drop in income during the Covid-19 crisis.

Discussions with the government on the kind of relationship they sought with faith communities would include considering whether there were services that had “any strings attached”. But she had noticed that government funding for projects favoured faith groups working together, a cohesion strategy.

Jenny Sinclair, from Together for the Common Good, said it was important that faith groups and faith-based charities held on to their authentic and distinctive sense of ethos. There was a danger, she said, that faith groups sought to justify their sense of existence as a useful handmaid of the state as they were able to reach parts the state could not.

“But we are more than this . . . we have a sacred civic role, particularly the churches that have been in relationship with neighbourhoods for hundreds of years,” she said.

She warned that the post-pandemic fallout would be rising unemployment, evictions and people defaulting on their mortgages, all of which would affect neighbourhoods very deeply.

She said groups “may have to step up in solidarity with their neighbours and perhaps negotiate with government, local or national. So that sense of understanding who we are, why we do what we do, needs to go through faith-based institutions like a stick of rock.”

Professor Chris Baker, from Goldsmiths, University of London, surveyed local authorities’ relationship with faith groups in a report, Keeping the Faith, commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society. He found that 60 per cent of the 194 local authorities who replied had called on faith-based food banks for support and two-thirds said their relationship with faith groups had increased during the pandemic.

Local authorities had found that their long-standing presence in a community was of great value when delivering services and accessing hard-to-reach groups.

He suggested there had been a growing interest in the role of religion in the public square over the past 20 years and there was a much more relaxed approach, despite past resistance due to socially conservative views, poor representation of women and suspicion that service would include an opportunity to proselytise.

Tim Mortimer, from the Faith and Belief Forum, spoke of highly successful interfaith initiatives, for example in Barking and Dagenham where faith groups worked together to pack up and distribute meals.

He suggested local authorities would find it useful to draw up covenants with faith groups, so that a wider group could be engaged. He said the government’s integration agenda, which pumps funding into five areas, had been brilliant.

But he also addressed a problem of the lack of consistency in the way authorities built relationships with faith groups, where some have faith engagement officers and others do not. He had come across examples where a faith group would not work with a council because of a grievance arising decades ago, and it took time to repair the damage.

Laura Marks, an interfaith campaigner and founder of several charities, warned that although the pandemic had brought people together in extraordinary ways, it was also causing rifts.

She had seen deliberate attempts to drive people and faith communities apart in a society where there was already a climate of fear. And the key weapon in these attempts was misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.

It had already been shown that black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities were more at risk of the virus and now she quoted a Royal Society of Public Health report saying minority groups were least likely to take up the vaccine.

She was aware of pernicious false information that the vaccine contained pork or other meat extracts forbidden in certain religions. She had heard of an imam issuing a fatwa against one vaccine. Other rumours that vaccines contained microchips for spying, or were related to satanic cults, were circulating widely on social media.

“This stuff doesn’t come from nowhere. There are people out there using opportunities of the chaos, fear, lack of understanding of the future, lack of trust in leadership, to exploit people and faith groups are at the receiving end of a lot of this,” Ms Marks said, and appealed to the government to counter this false information from the top.

She said faith leaders had issued advice, scholars in each tradition had written information for leaders to relay to congregations. But the government had to do something at a very senior level to address the real concern at the impact of false information on minority groups and faith groups.

Bhervinder Singh, from the Sikh Council, agreed, saying he knew that young people on social media with access to conspiracy theories and false information were affecting the older generation, putting parents and grandparents in danger. Now Sikhs were preparing their own films in Punjab and English to counter the narratives, targeting the older generation to come forward and be vaccinated.

Rabbi Alex Goldberg, from Surrey University, spoke of a resilience forum where senior faith leaders and frontline workers worked together to establish the key messages and then distribute them to their communities. The faith groups did this in such a way as to keep their autonomy as the faith leaders knew their community best.

View the discussion on our You Tube Channel here