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[Image] Professor Grace Davie

Faith and Policy - Session 1, What’s new?

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts.

The pyramid, the web and the orange Listen here

Partnership looks different, depending which partner is doing the looking, argued Vivien Lowndes (Professor of Local Government Studies, De Montfort University). She had come from political science to an interest in how religion could be a partner to government. Experience had shown her that officials may not be sure what they’re dealing with when it comes to religion.

 “The Church of England is the cheapest way into anywhere” – research interviewee, voicing a civil service viewpoint

She offered 3 pictures which all depended on the viewer’s standpoint. Civil servants and their local counterparts might see religions as top-down pyramids, with faith leaders able to mobilise followers and release resources. As one research interviewee had put it, “The Church of England is the cheapest way into anywhere”.

Religions themselves might see themselves very differently, as a web. A religion has a variety of goals and embodies a complexity of relationships. Some of those are directed towards ends that have nothing to do with civil or public good, such as prayer and worship. Some external goals might be in tension with public service, such as proselytising. Goals directed towards the end of public good are present across all faiths, but only represent a part of each. Relationships with outside bodies are seen as 2-way.

            “Faith representatives are seen as the newest recruit to the partnership table” – research interviewee

A third picture derived from the idea of a Stakeholder Democracy as seen by New Labour. Faith is a sector, like a segment of an orange. Religious bodies are seen as the newest recruits to the partnership table alongside business, local government and other community groups.

With such different perceptions around regarding the role of faith organisations in society, it was clear that relationships and participation would be problematical. Those who sat around partnership tables as “leaders” did not necessarily represent all that was going on within the faith communities from which they came and on behalf of whom they appeared to speak.

Who’s not sitting comfortably? Listen here

Grace Davie (Professor Emeritus, Sociology of Religion, Exeter University) looked back to two key religious moments of the 1980s, a papal visit in 1982 and the publication of “Faith in the City” in 1985. Who was discomfited? There were Protestant protests against the Pope, while ecumenists applauded. Free Market Conservatives were disturbed by the Church of England interfering in policy, while One-Nation Tories were caught over a barrel and the Secular Left gave support. Now, in contrast, it is the Secular Liberals who are disturbed by religion, the Conservative Religious who find their beliefs under threat. Ecumenism has given way to a new multi-faith story. Sociologists had argued that secularism would bring an end to religion but events conspired to prove otherwise.

“We have a lack of knowledge, tools, vocabulary, concepts and narratives to talk about religion” – Grace Davie

Change has not only come to the UK; the global order from the Iranian Revolution [1979] through the collapse of the Soviet Empire [1989] to the present decade’s start with the 9/11 attacks [2001] has seen defining events, none of which were predicted by social scientists. Europe with its secularism also now had to see itself as different from the rest of the world, not an indicator of where the world would follow.

             “I am continually disappointed and dismayed with the public debate about religion” – Grace Davie

Secularism has been declining while the traditional markers of secularism have been rising. The social sciences are ill-equipped to respond. Are today’s students of religion up to the present challenge, given the secular assumptions which underpin the prevailing philosophy of social science? She hoped so.

Faith can be troublesome

From the floor Maqsood Ahmed [Department of Communities and Local Government] drew attention to the government’s recognition of faith communities in capacity building, to which Vivien Loundes responded with a quotation from Rob Furbey that “Faith communities can be troublesome as well as cuddlesome”.

“Faith communities can be troublesome as well as cuddlesome” – Rob Furbey, quoted by Vivien Lowndes

Jim Robertson [Churches’ Regional Commission in the North East] said the Church had in the 1990s recognised changes in the world of work which had proved to be prophetic, anticipating the collapse of the banks. Grace Davie concluded by observing an example of how the present situation is contradictory: while mental health practice now gives place to the spiritual, a nurse can be brought to court for wearing a religious symbol. A subtlety of discourse is needed to take all this into account.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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