08 July 2008
Benefits of religion
The Charity Commission’s consultation on ‘Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion’ ended on 30 June. We can expect a period of serious reflection and critical questioning before the Commission finalises its guidance to the religious charitable sector in accordance with its monitoring of charities in the light of the Charities Act 2006.
Many religious groups, including the Evangelical Alliance, have generally welcomed the new Act and have broadly supported the new concept of charities in future having to demonstrate their contribution to public benefit rather than it being presumed as in the past. However, some serious concerns remain. The Church of England, for example, warned that Christian charities in particular are in danger of political interference from the new public benefit rules. It is worried that a charity existing exclusively to promote traditional Christian views in a particular area – such as marriage and sexual ethics – could have its charitable status threatened, and that the Commission’s intention to assess membership criteria, evangelism methods, doctrinal interpretation, and public opinion represents a serious exceeding of powers and competence. It also points out that religious groups who provide pastoral care are already under pressure in other areas to suppress their religious character and distinctives.
Whilst the benefits of religion and belief do have to be assessed and articulated in satisfactory ways to be comprehensible to a largely secular legal world, because spiritual benefit, for example, may be less easy to quantify, it is important that its distinctive language should not become marginalized in favour of purely secular categories. Spiritual benefit is not a notional concept but its relevance and significance is often only appreciated by experience. The challenge of understanding and recognising the validity, nature and language of religion and belief in terms of its own particular character relating to public benefits needs to be respected and taken on board, not least as religion and belief now forms a major human rights strand of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Attempts to reduce the language of religion and belief to purely secular/sociological terminology or the lowest common language denominator of ‘non-religious belief systems’ and so-called humanist ‘spiritualised principles’ should be resisted. Whilst it clearly needs to explain itself in understandable categories, in dealing with religion and belief its own terminology should not be discarded whilst attempting to force it into a ‘one size fits all’ secular mould that may be unsuited to its particular nature and characteristics. Requiring religion to speak only the language of the non-religious is a dangerous notion since secular organisations are frequently diametrically opposed to faith and share little in common, notwithstanding attempts by e.g., humanist groups to present themselves as a secular version of religion. It is therefore crucial that religious charitable organisations are asked the right and the most appropriate questions and are not merely required to check lowest common denominator tick boxes.
In other areas, the Charity Commission suggests that it is sufficient to demonstrate public benefit merely to ‘appreciate the arts’ or to ‘experience positive feelings when helping sick animals’. In which case self-evident spiritual benefits provided by religion and belief should be acknowledged for what they are on their own terms, traditionally expressed in the ‘edification and improvement’ of a religion’s followers. Measurement of public benefit should effectively depend on usage – i.e., the fact that people find religion helpful and evidence this by what they do – e.g., in attending church or by other forms of participation. If the felt benefit may be described, for example, in terms of the sense of forgiveness and assurance of salvation experienced through the cross of Jesus Christ, then that should represent a valid religion and belief public benefit descriptor. Though tangible social and community activities often accompany religious faith as inspiration for and manifestation of the outworking of that faith, religion and belief should not necessarily have to demonstrate such other tangible benefits but should be accepted as affording spiritual health and wellbeing in its own right – however indirect or intangible. The whole point is that faith generally equips individuals and groups with the mental and spiritual motivations necessary to be good citizens, a fact that is usually uncontested but that can relatively easily be demonstrated by reference to statistics relating to e.g., crime and social action. Religion does not claim exclusivity in positive contribution to society, but it does claim disproportionate contribution. Indeed, most major charitable institutions owe their origins to religious motivation.
The Evangelical Alliance, in its recent submission to the Charity Commission, took the opportunity to restate some of the features that make the Christian community a vital part of the charity sector:
The value contributed to society by the Christian community in particular and religion and belief in general has often been highlighted. Recent responses by Christian groups to the Charity Commission seek to highlight and articulate the case for charitable status to be retained for all forms of legitimate Christian religious activity, including proclamation of the Christian gospel. Government, Prime Minister,
Chancellor and Home Secretary have all expressed strong recent support for faith groups and the role they play in developing civic society and providing crucial social support community networks.
With regard to missionary or evangelistic Christian charities, questions are still asked as to whether activity solely aimed at presenting and seeking responses to the Gospel should be regarded as meeting the public benefit test. This question was addressed in Government consultations and it was clearly accepted in the consequent parliamentary debates on the Charities Act 2006 that such organisations unquestionably qualified for charitable status. It was recognised that religious organisations need to be able to sustain themselves into the future, something that has always been done through the medium of evangelism (the non-coercive communication of the Christian faith to those not yet committed to the gospel of Christ).