In recent months, we’ve seen a new confidence in talking about religion from the Coalition. In contrast with the last government’s reticence on the subject, we’ve had David Cameron extolling the virtues of the King James Version, and Michael Gove proposing to send a Bible to every school. Cameron went so far as to distinguish himself from Labour explicitly: “People often say politicians shouldn’t ‘do God.'” In fact, he said, politicians should recognise “both what our faith communities bring to our country… and also how incredibly important faith is to many people in Britain.”
Have we then moved from a government unprepared to engage with matters of faith, to a new dawn of understanding about the role of religion in public life?
Yes and no. New research, being presented at the first of a series of debates organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) “Religion and Society Programme,” former MP Charles Clarke and Theos, suggests the picture is more complex.
The research, carried out by Dr Therese O’Toole, reassessed the key project from the Coalition in this area: “Near Neighbours.” The project reveals a subtle change in approach to faith groups: it releases £5m of funding to four areas in England, with the aim of promoting interactions across faith and non-faith groups. Launched last year, it offers small grants of between £250 and £5,000 to local groups for projects that bring people of different faiths together.
It’s a “Big Society” initiative, which hopes to enable local communities and faith groups in particular, to create their own local solutions to social problems. But what is particularly novel is that the programme is administered by the Church of England, and applicants require the counter-signature of vicars from the parishes in which the projects would take place.
This coalition initiative places the Church of England in a new role, as broker and arbiter of local interfaith activity—which raises a series of questions. Does the Church of England have the capacity for the job? Does Anglicanism still have the central place in the religious landscape of the UK as it once did? And perhaps most pressingly, will religious minorities be able to access the funding if…