Colin Bloom’s review into how the UK government can better engage with faith communities overall is a positive report. However, there are four chapters in the report where we believe it is important to inform our members of potential legislative changes, the policy issues Whitehall will consider going forward and where we will be engaging with policymakers in the lead up to the next general election.

On 26 April 2023, Colin Bloom, the independent faith adviser to the government published the Does government do God? report; bringing together over 21,000 consultation responses from faith leaders, charities and academics from different religion or belief organisations. 

Before reading this reflection, I recommend you read the director of advocacy, Danny Webster’s article published on the day of publication. He gives a helpful overview of the report.

Recommendations that the Evangelical Alliance welcome

The Bloom review draws on several recommendations the Evangelical Alliance made in its written submission back in November 2020. We are calling for policymakers to:

  • Recognise the diversity of belief in the UK and engage with faith communities differently rather than consider them as one homogenous group.
  • Value the significant contributions of churches to society, as demonstrated through the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and beyond.
  • Take a cross-government approach when engaging with different faith groups. Bloom’s proposal for a faith champion in every department and the creation of a special envoy for religion on domestic issues are positive recommendations.
  • Improve its religious literacy’ of different faith and belief communities. This is an important step but as we will see in chapters discussed it needs to go further. 

What are the recommendations that require further scrutiny from evangelicals?

Central to our evangelical identity is the belief that the good news is both life transforming for the individual and also life giving to communities and the world around us (Micah 6, Matthew 28, Romans 10, James 2). We all have an important role to play to educate our peers, wider society and policymakers on how faith in Jesus Christ and His kingdom is not a private belief.

Religion in modern Britain is accepted as a personal choice and celebrated for its diversity in society, but it’s rare to find politicians, policymakers or public advocates for increased religious freedom in the UK. This is especially true when it comes to evangelical convictions on the authority of scripture, marriage and identity — three issues often perceived by the culture as outdated, harmful and intolerable. 

The report goes a long way to celebrate the contribution of different faith and belief groups to public life but offers the government little in understanding in the relationship between faith convictions and its importance in public life. Without this it’s highly likely that when civil servants and government ministers begin to consider new legislation or develop policy proposals, they will be based on the caricatures of evangelicals rather than informed by lived experiences of Christians working in the public sector or active within the community.

Below we outline four chapters where we are seeking to engage the secretary of state to discuss how the government can strengthen religious freedom in a progressive secular society. 

Chapter 3: faith in education

The policy proposals made in this chapter could impact a parent’s choice to home school and how Christian ministries working with schools and within the community.

Religious education in schools

Disappointingly religious education is taught less in schools and even less in non-faith schools. A study from Liverpool Hope University in 2019 found that 701 schools across England had chosen to stop offering the optional religious studies GCSE between 2017 and 2018 – a drop of 13%.’ This is part explained by cuts to school budgets and headteachers deciding to remove extra-curriculum subjects from the teaching plan. It is also explained by educators’ lack of understanding, skill and resources to teach the subject well.

Out-of-school settings

The review expresses deep concern for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in out-of-school settings such as Jewish yeshivas, Islamic madrassahs, Sunday schools and calls for the government to register and regulate out-of-school settings.’ 

We are aware of the government’s concerns that faith-based settings are seeking to replace a child’s schooling, however that is not the case with Sunday schools, or Christian ministries like Scripture Union, Youth for Christ or others working in the community. 

It is our view that children’s church, youth Bible studies or holiday clubs should not be within the scope of the future Bill as this would be the first kind of state inspecting of its kind. A proposal unprecedented and more akin to non-democratic regimes. 

Home education

Bloom in his assessment calls on the government to have a comprehensive understanding of where children are being educated and whether proper safeguarding measures are in place. Specifically, he is asking the government to legislate and make it a legal duty on parents and out-of-school providers to inform the local councils of how many children there are under their care. Proposals previously made in the government’s Schools Bill, but which were removed because it received strong criticism from faith communities and teachers on its workability.

In our ongoing engagement with parliament, the department of education and the government we will continue to advocate for Christian children’s right to receive an education that celebrates their faith and for national and regional government officials to consult with parents ahead of any change to education legislation or policy.

"If something looks like a school, sounds like a school and behaves like a school – it’s a school and should be regulated like one. Otherwise, the increased risk to children through potentially poor safeguarding practice, unchecked health and safety compliance, and narrow educational focus will continue."
Colin Bloom
Colin Bloom
independent faith engagement adviser

Chapter 6: faith-based extremism

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.

In Matthew 7 of Jesus’ sermon on the mount He warned against false prophets and those masquerading as followers of the gospel and His kingdom. It was important to Jesus that his disciples knew then, and know now, how to distinguish between truth and false teaching. 

The apostle Paul was equally strong in his rebuke of those seeking to pervert the gospel to glean status and influence over others. There was also an expectation there would be church discipline of some kind, either correction, withdrawing from them or even to ask the person to leave the community. (2 Corinthians 11 and Galatians 1, 1 Timothy 4, Titus 3). 

As Christians the language of apostate and heretic is familiar to us because of the Bible teachings on such matters. However, to read such words in a report to the UK government is alarming. Particularly where there is such a strong position against such language and an expectation for the government to watch out for such use of language in the context of religious extremism. 

"It is a violation of the basic human rights of others and a threat to the freedoms of our democratic society to disparage people, make them or encourage others to make them outcasts, brand them as ‘apostates’, ‘unbelievers’ or ‘heretics’, or otherwise shun them because of different opinions (or lack of opinion)."
Colin Bloom
Colin Bloom
independent faith engagement adviser

The rise of white supremacy, neo-Nazi and other ethnic-specific groups seeking to incite violence and hate towards others based on ethnicity, culture heritage and religion is concerning, and the courts must hold such people accountable for their actions. To suggest calling a white-supremacist a heretic wrong, falsely using the Bible to justify prejudice, is deeply concerning.

Chapter 7: faith-based exploitation

The review proposes several recommendations for the government, Charity Commission and criminal justice agencies on how it can better investigate and effectively prosecute individuals or faith organisations exploiting others for financial gain.

Amongst Christians, there are ministers and churches that seemingly seek to enrich themselves, which is the extreme effect of a ‘prosperity gospel’. Those people and organisations need scrutiny and perhaps greater regulation - call to evidence respondent

Bloom in his assessment aims to be balanced and distinguish between faith-organisations raising financial gifts to support community projects, pay for buildings, staff and those who pressure poor and vulnerable members to give more than they can afford to the church organisation, under a certain premise that God will return the favour.’ 

The latter, Christians should agree is an abuse of power and is a responsibility of denomination or church governance to remove and report such an individual or organisation. Where these proposals cause concern is that it could mischaracterise Pentecostal or Black majority churches’ biblical teaching on tithing, generosity, and kingdom inheritance as taught by Jesus and the Apostle Paul. 

It’s crucial that Bloom’s proposals are done in consultation with evangelical churches and leaders to avoid the state regulating church practice and teaching rather than identifying financial exploitation.

Chapter 8: religious marriage

An important update church leaders should be aware of is that the legal age to marry in England and Wales is 18

The Marriage and Civil Partnership Act 2022, (effective from February 2023) increased the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18. This law change is an attempt by parliament to respond to the growing issue of forced and coercive marriages in the UK. The review also mentions the government’s concerns that forced and coercive marriages have been used to cure same-sex attracted’ children and adults. 

The change in law is a safeguard against abuse and coercion and we would urge the Scottish government to also increase the legal age to 18 years old. As the body of Christ, let us pray victims of abuse will get the therapeutic support they need and that there will be an end to coercive and underage marriage.

The second important update in this chapter is the Law Commission’s proposed changes to wedding laws in England and Wales. 

In July 2022, the Law Commission concluded its review on wedding laws and proposed that the government should update legislation, moving from a building-based to an officiant-based’ scheme. One key point of contention with the proposed changes is that it does not sufficiently recognise churches sharing premises where a same-sex wedding could take place. 

The Bloom review welcomes the Law Commission’s proposals and urges the government to implement those recommendations that would enable non-religious individuals to have a wedding ceremony in keeping with their beliefs. 

We produced a briefing for members to help them understand what this would mean in practice, and we are still awaiting the government’s response as to whether it will implement part or all the recommendations.

"It is the opinion of this reviewer that this recommendation should be adopted by the Ministry of Justice at the earliest opportunity in line with the recent ruling of the High Court"
Colin Bloom
Colin Bloom
independent faith engagement adviser

Conclusion

The Bloom review has ignited an important conversation about faith engagement at the centre of government. It is a unique opportunity for government and Whitehall engagement to strengthen relationships with faith communities as it develops new policy and introduces new legislation. Although this report primarily focuses on England, it is an opportunity for devolved administration to reassess its engagement with faith communities.

At the Evangelical Alliance, promoting religious freedom across the UK remains a core priority and we will be writing to the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and the prime minister to discuss the concerns raised above. 

Please continue to pray for the advocacy team across the UK, as we seek to make Jesus known to politicians and policymakers.

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