Does Government 'do God?'

Dr Mandela Thyoka

Engaging with faith, people of faith and places of worship to bring forward meaningful reform.

The historical legacy and the overwhelming contribution made by faith, people of faith and places of worship in the history of this nation is unquestionable. The UK is a prosperous multi-faith country, having some of the most robust protections in the world to allow people to practise their religion, faith, or belief freely.

One recalls when the former UK Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Tony Blair, was asked about his faith in 2003, former Downing Street director of strategy and communications Alastair Campbell is reputed to have interrupted his boss with the words "We don't do God" to the assembled journalists.

However, times have changed. In September 2019, Colin Bloom, an independent Faith Engagement Adviser, was tasked by the government of the former Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, to carry out an independent Faith Engagement Review. The call for evidence posed questions about how those of all faiths, or none, perceived the government's engagement with faith organisations ran from November to December 2020. The report's inception coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought the government and church together to find solutions for the citizenry.

The brave question the government tasked the Bloom review to investigate was, "Are we properly engaging with people of faith?" It is the first of its kind, drawing from over 21,000 responses to the call for evidence, along with hundreds of hours of follow-up discussions with people of faith, faith-based organisations, and civil service officials. Despite the breadth and complexity of the subject matter, the Bloom report, though not claiming to be comprehensive, provides an honest and trustworthy appraisal of the fundamental areas where faith and government meet.

This report, published on 26 April 2023, is broadly welcomed and could not have come at a more suitable time when we are witnessing the coronation of King Charles III, the defender of the faith. At a time of recovery from the ill effects of the pandemic, the report is a welcome antidote to any distrust between the government and the church. It is no secret that religious demographics have changed considerably in the UK, as evidenced by the 2021 Census for England and Wales, which showed that over half of respondents declared a religion, representing a significant proportion of the population of England and Wales. The Bloom review's call for evidence found that 53% of respondents believe freedom of religion or belief is under threat in the UK, most pronounced among Christians (68%).

The Bloom report makes 22 firm recommendations to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up Housing and Communities on improving engagement, both in recognising the contribution of faith communities, ensuring fair treatment when using or working in public service, and addressing harmful practices linked to faith.

However, the report is light on how government can achieve better relations with people of faith. Notably, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is among other listed faith-based organisations that the Probation Service is already working with to strengthen links with prison-side chaplains. The report says, "Some members of both Christian and minority religions felt they were at risk of being marginalised, de-platformed, or even losing their jobs for practising their faiths or beliefs."  Our Church should seize the opportunity to positively engage with the findings in this review to bring forward meaningful reform.