Government tries to reset relationship between state and faith

Image credit: Pikrepo

By Christopher Lamb 

The British government is pressing reset on its tense relationship with faith communities. A review is likely to recommend how to tackle religious illiteracy inside Whitehall and establish a special office to handle faith matters.

Colin Bloom, a government faith adviser who is conducting the review, told the Religion Media Centre that ministers and civil servants “could do a lot of things better” while the “lack of faith literacy” among officials must be addressed.

The review comes amid tensions between faith groups and the government with senior members of the Conservative Party facing allegations of Islamophobia and the decision to overlook the retired Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, for a peerage. A number of religious leaders have also protested against the second Covid-19 lockdown restrictions that banned public worship.

Mr Bloom is now tasked with a faith engagement review that will examine the relationship between the state and religious groups and end with him submitting recommendations directly to Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary. The review’s call for evidence closes on 11 December.

Mr Bloom was appointed to his role last year after working for the Conservative Party, the Conservative Christian Fellowship and Christians in Politics. He was born into a Jewish family, where he was encouraged to be agnostic but his late teens and early twenties he was drawn to Christianity. He prefers to describe himself as a “follower of Jesus” rather than “a Christian”.

During an interview with the RMC, Mr Bloom said elements of the civil service were a “bit squeamish” about religion but the problem was ignorance rather than a “crazy conspiracy that government is full of almost evangelical secularists that want to shut faith down”.

One of the recommendations from his review, he explained, was likely to focus on improving religious literacy so that Whitehall could work more closely with faith groups.

“I think the lack of faith literacy within the civil service is a big question,” he said. “You see some people who say ‘I don’t understand [religion] so I want to be neutral.’ They think that ignoring faith is somehow a neutral response, when I would argue, ‘No, ignoring faith is the opposite of neutral: you’re actually actively shutting people of faith out’.”

He went on: “If a senior civil servant is charged with either enacting legislation or writing guidance notes around government legislation and they don’t know the difference between you know, what it is to be a Sikh and what it is to be a Hindu, then that’s frankly unacceptable . . . we need to make sure that that level of literacy goes a lot further than just the very, very basics.”

Another review recommendation could be the establishment of an office for faith at the heart of government, an idea that is gaining momentum after an all-party parliamentary group called for the appointment of a “faiths commissioner”.

“I think there’s a lot of merit to that argument,” Mr Bloom said. “The idea of having an individual or an office at the centre of government that has a view of all of the complexities of faith, but not just individual faiths but the intra-faith aspects . . . I think there is some merit, say, to have a centre of excellence at the heart of government.” But he stressed: “The review is not written yet.”

While the review was commissioned before Covid-19, Mr Bloom said the pandemic had brought faith groups and government into a closer working relationship than had been the case for many years.

In September, Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, submitted proposals on “levelling up our communities” which encompassed the contribution of faith groups. Mr Kruger said the “government should invite the country’s faith leaders to make a grand offer of help on behalf of their communities, in exchange for a reciprocal commitment from the state”.

He had been one of the architects of the “Big Society”, David Cameron’s attempt, as prime minister, to empower civil society — and faith groups — in running their communities.

Mr Bloom said 10 Downing street had been “absolutely instrumental in making sure that that this review happened” and that the view of Boris Johnson and his advisers was that people “should believe what they want to believe” and “should be free to share their beliefs with others in a healthy way.”

In September it was revealed that Wilfred, son of Mr Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds, was baptised at the Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral. Mr Johnson, who has Muslim, Jewish and Christian ancestors, was also baptised in a Roman Catholic Church, although was later confirmed as an Anglican.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that the prime minister was a born-again, Bible-believing, spirit-led devil-kicking follower of Jesus or any other kind of religion,” Mr Bloom said. “He wouldn’t say that himself, but he would firmly defend other people’s right to believe what they wanted to believe and I think I think it’s really refreshing that we have a prime minister and a leadership which embrace all faiths and none so warmly.”

Mr Bloom did not know if the baptism of Wilfred might signal a return by Mr Johnson to the Roman Catholic faith, but added: “Why not? He might find that really, really helpful.”