The Government has commissioned a review of its engagement with faith and faith groups in England.

This wide-ranging review is an excellent opportunity to raise concerns about how efforts to support, understand and interact with faith communities have not always succeeded but to also highlight good practice and promote better long-term engagement. 

The Evangelical Alliance is responding to the review and strongly encourages evangelical churches, organisations and individual Christians to take time before 11 December to submit their views. The questions in the survey touch on a range of issues, and you can keep your response short and limited to a few areas, or you can comment on the full range of issues addressed. 

There are three broad areas that the Evangelical Alliance wants to see come out of the review. We want to see a better understanding of evangelical Christianity, better engagement with evangelical Christians and evangelical churches, and as a result of this better outcomes for all of society.

The Government’s reviewer is interested in hearing from all faiths about their perspective. One key point we will make is that they will understand faiths generally and will engage better with faith groups broadly if they understand and engage with them specifically as distinct and different groups rather than as one single entity – more of a fruit salad than a smoothie. Therefore, our contribution into this debate is how the Government can better engage and understand evangelical Christianity.

Better understanding

We want to see better understanding of evangelical Christianity. There is frequent talk about religious literacy, but this is usually about the what and how of faith practices. This is somewhat inconsistent with evangelical Christianity which is specifically not about particular practices or activities but about relationship with God and our salvation through His work. It is therefore vital that government understands the who’ of evangelical Christianity, the churches across the UK from diverse communities, reaching the corners of society so frequently ignored or neglected. 

Understanding evangelical Christianity means recognising the breadth of who evangelicals are as well as accepting the beliefs that lie at the heart of evangelical belief. Finding a diversity of beliefs is sometimes used to obscure the centrality of key historical tenets. While the Government will be able to find people using the label evangelical who believe all sorts of things, a robust understanding of evangelical Christianity requires knowing what beliefs are at the core and what are peripheral views that should not be given centrality or equivalence. 

Two very brief examples from the COVID crisis that exemplify the need for better understanding. First,the permission for services to be streamed or recorded in church buildings was a key exemption during both the spring and November lockdowns that enabled churches to continue providing worship services for their congregations. We were encouraged by the quick understanding from key civil servants that this provision needed to be broad to accommodate the variety of church services and needed to include lay leaders, worship leaders and technical support as well as those with a more formal church leader designation. However, this understanding clearly did not filter down to the police who shut down a church service in Milton Keynes in November on the basis that too many people were involved. 

Second, however, is the continued frustration over congregational singing. The policy development process is complex at the best of times and during the current pandemic we recognise the need for achieving consistency across different sectors. However, the guidance and regulations in this area have been driven by performing arts requirements and then arranged to fit churches. This has meant that you have the farce that a choir can have rehearsals and performances, but a small church – possibly smaller than some choirs – can’t sing congregationally regardless of the safeguards put in place. Even the provision for outdoor singing has been communicated around allowing door-to-door carolling to take place. 

Better engagement

We have been encouraged by the efforts that the Government has made towards working with churches during the coronavirus crisis. What has been significant, but not universally true, has been the efforts to engage with a wide range of churches and church networks beyond the traditional denominations. This has been a positive development; however, two aspects showed the limitations of this. First, the core task group for reopening places of worship was initially established with a very narrow representation, with leaders of Anglican and Catholic churches the sole Christian representatives. While this was subsequently slightly broadened it demonstrated an ongoing short-sightedness as to what Christianity in the UK today looks like. 

Second, engagement disappeared altogether when urgency or political expediency seemed to demand it. There was no engagement with any faith groups ahead of the November lockdown. Christian leaders had met with the Government’s faith minister the Monday prior to the announcement and this was not on the horizon. This was one significant factor in the opposition to the announcement and the restriction on churches to meet together. Better engagement would not have removed all the opposition to the closure of churches in November, as there were substantive issues at stake; however, it would have avoided the level of frustration seen. 

Engagement with faith groups needs to be real and substantive and lead to meaningful policy development and implementation. It cannot be as a fig leaf to cover over inadequacies, nor as a mechanism for policy communication to diverse communities. Engagement requires listening and taking the time to listen at points in policy development where it can be meaningful rather than as an avenue for disseminating government messages. Churches have a level of understanding of issues that communities are facing, the breadth and depth of which are rarely matched by other groups in society. Engagement should not be limited to solely faith issues’.

Better outcomes

Religious freedom is at the heart of all our other freedoms – it is not a peripheral concern and it cannot be annexed off without harming the liberties we enjoy. 

Author and social critic Os Guinness describes contemporary western society as a cut flower culture’, in that we are enjoying the fruits of our Christian heritage without tending to the roots – moreover that we have now intentionally detached the benefits of Christianity from the stems that sustain them. We passionately believe that Christianity has a role to play in societal and cultural transformation.

A society where the Christian church is given the space to preach the good news and serve the community is a society that will flourish. We are not looking for better engagement with government for the sake of it, or to be invited into more forums, meetings or consultative groups. We believe that better understanding and better engagement with evangelical Christianity will lead to better outcomes for all of society. That’s why religious freedom is at the heart of the Evangelical Alliance’s public policy work; we get to stand up and speak out about many other issues and policy areas because we have the freedom to live out our faith in public life. 

Therefore, the primary outcome that we are looking for from this review is a continued robust defence of religious freedom from the Government and the space for evangelical Christians to contribute to public life through their work, their charity and their leadership, and through the good news that is at the core of our belief.

Our engagement with government

It is our belief that evangelical engagement and involvement in government and public life should be directed towards the good of all society. The Evangelical Alliance will often work on issues that have a particular focus for evangelical Christians or are about ensuring that evangelical Christians can continue to engage in public life and all aspects of society without having to compromise their faith. This is so that there is the space where we can work for the good of all. 

It is our conviction that while we call on the Government to improve its understanding and engagement with evangelical Christians we also need to work hard to improve our engagement with government and our understanding of how it works. It would be churlish to suggest that there is only need for improvement on one side of this equation. The Evangelical Alliance is committed to raising up public leaders who will speak into every area of society. We cannot expect government to understand and engage with us if we refuse to get onto the pitch and play. There is much that the Government can and should do to improve its engagement, but part of that improvement will come with increased involvement.