Listening to faith communities – lessons for Labour


Listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury speak on ‘reconciliation’ the other day at Digby Stuart College, I was reminded of my time working as the first ever faith advisor appointed at Cabinet level in the UK. While the current Archbishop had worked out a series of steps by which to address reconciliation in a variety of contexts, back then the argument was who best, and how best, for faith voices to be heard or engaged by government as a prelude to building up social harmony and collaboration in UK society. The whole approach was, for a while, qualified by long lists of ‘who not to talk to’ even if they were going to be key to the future.


Inspired by the Archbishop’s vision I turned to the current government’s policies and noticed there are faith networks with which His Majesty’s Government will still not meet. Skimming Labour’s ‘race and faith’ manifesto the issue seemed to scream out for attention by its omission. Given that Labour looks likely to form our next government, that omission needs urgent attention.

Before I arrived to work in the local government ministry under the last Labour government, previous Secretaries of State had created, almost from nowhere, ‘new’ representative fora for Muslims, including Muslim women and young people. But almost every Muslim I met described them as merely ‘ministerial creations’ that had attracted ‘nobody who was fully rooted in the community’. The more I watched, the more I could see that the government was wishing that there was more unity in communities than there really was – and was trying to save time by listening to bodies they had set up themselves. This distorted its own learning and shut out the voices of huge swathes of diversity in religion or belief traditions.  I wrote about this later for the Social Policy Association and Georgetown University.

No single individual or forum was, or could ever be, credible, not because they were not well intentioned or lacked care, but simply because the complexity of every community and of public bodies made such an attempt impossible.

Secondly, quite often a single individual, or a married couple, would come telling me that they – sometimes only they – had the ability to interpret their religious community to government and that they were especially placed to do so. I would then find out that they had told their community that only they could interpret government to them. Often this was deeply rooted in integrity:  I was approached by one individual, very active and caring, who told me ‘I can explain Sikhism to you and make government do better’. Hoping to be helpful, they inserted themselves into this position. I already knew, though, that Sikhism was wide, that there were big debates about Sikhs and the census, and that younger Sikhs already saw this individual as being from a previous generation. Later this was a live issue in my department at the University of Birmingham when one of our eminent scholars ended up literally being attacked for her stances.  Sikhism is a cacophony of voices no matter how unified any aspect of its theology may be.

Thirdly, as I sat with civil servants and policy makers of contrasting departments, I realised that they perceived the Catholic community, from which I came, as ‘a bastion of the Right’, ‘an obstacle to equalities’ and ‘obsessed with banning contraception’ and ‘full of hate for gay people’. From my own research I knew that most Mass going Catholics did not take up those positions. From my research I also noted the (tiny) Catholic Women’s’ League was larger than organisations representing British Humanists and yet the latter seemed to do rather better than most when it came to meeting ministers. The Catholic Bishops in the UK, by contrast, did not yet have a black person among their number and yet, as I had presented to the Irish Bishops Conference, the UK Catholic community’s ethnic and linguistic make up had transformed since 2004 especially. It would not have been credible for me to speak up in favour of ‘all Catholics’ because the community was as diverse as any other in its views.

In fact, through recent research covering fourteen government and non-governmental organisations, I have gathered evidence which suggests that even within the same government body there can be multiple encounters with different communities or beliefs shaped more by the department a staff member happens to sit in than theology, ignorance or the issue in hand. Chaplains in a hospital, for example, may ‘do God’ or beliefs from their typically junior position but, at a more senior level, this has to be worked out by Clinical or Operations Directors looking at catering, recruitment, or estates policy which take altogether different skillsets. In foreign ministries, internationally minded universities, and prisons this gets more complex still. In government that complexity, of course, was multiplied across the country as local authorities, universities, hospitals, prisons, and so on, sought to make sense of the religion or belief traditions they may be encountering at each level of their hierarchy without knowing that those encounters were not static.

Overall, the reality then was that any single individual – no matter how brilliant – sent out by government to relate to a whole community on their own could not credibly pull it off. In turn, any single forum or individual that claimed to ‘know’ the mind of a whole community (or even its keenest members) was, more often than not, passing on hunches or their best bet (or a specific theological stance). No single individual or forum was, or could ever be, credible, not because they were not well intentioned or lacked care, but simply because the complexity of every community and of public bodies made such an attempt impossible. That is what made them different from a business or trade association.

This has real consequences for Labour in the future if it does form a government. If, like the current government, Labour refuses to meet with the Muslim Council of Great Britain it will constrain its access to some of our most vulnerable citizens and many Mosques who helped the NHS with its social reach during the Covid pandemic. In turn, if Labour relies solely on the Church of England or black majority Christian churches it may dilute its insights into Scotland or Wales, rural or coastal regions. A government that did not know Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Ahmadiyya community would lose insight into the severe reality of the persecution they face in Russia and parts of South Asia even while remaining a tiny presence within our own shores.

Much has changed in UK society since I worked for the first time in government but, by their silence, it could be that Labour’s approach in these regards has not changed with those times, or that it will simply ape current government weaknesses which Labour’s relevant plans suggest have only made things worse.

If Labour’s policies are, in the future, to be built on sure footings going forward, they need to be opened up beyond tiny niches of advisors, any single person, or dominant and preferred consultative voices. They need diversity to be a guiding point for listening from the very local to the most national level as religion is found in every neighbourhood and, when it goes wrong (or right), there can be significant consequences.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury argued the other day, reconciliation needs more work; just good intent, important though this is, is insufficient. Our very social harmony is at stake.

Never miss a post - subscribe to updates to the blog (English language only) here

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.
Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Author: Francis Davis

Published: 30th January 2023

Posted in:

© Catholic Social Thought 2020