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Engaging with faith groups

Attempts to get faith groups involved in the wider community can lead to cynicism among members, unless carefully handled, according to a new booklet published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), called 'Faith-based voluntary action'.

Moves by politicians and officials to encourage greater participation can backfire if, for instance, they are seen as claiming 'grass roots legitimacy' on the basis of a group's involvement, without actually engaging with its values and practices.

The 'Faith-based voluntary action' booklet was produced to accompany the first in a series of special seminars entitled 'Engaging Citizens', organised by the ESRC in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

It summarises views from two experts - Professor Vivien Lowndes, of De Montfort University, and Greg Smith, until recently senior research fellow at the University of East London, and now with the Salvation Army in Preston.

The first of these seminars will be held at NCVO in London on June 15, when Campbell Robb, Director of Public Policy at NCVO, will respond to the publication's findings.

Campbell Robb said: "There is a lot of interest today in encouraging community involvement. It is clearly important to understand what motivates people to participate, what turns them off, and what contribution many, including those involved in faith groups, are already making to building a society that is inclusive and cohesive."

The booklet says it is widely recognised that there are many positive elements in the desire of government agencies - nationally, regionally and locally - to engage in partnership with faith-based organisations, and work for social cohesion across these communities.

However, Professor Lowndes warns that whilst faith groups' values and principles play a role in the regeneration of communities, sometimes tensions can arise between them and those responsible for making and carrying out policies. Groups may see an important role for 'prayer' or 'grace', to use Christian examples, in their community work.

Professor Lowndes said: "These are not cultural 'add-ons' but practices aimed at achieving specific ends. It is easy, in this context, to see how communication problems can arise between faith groups and secular policy-makers on the ground."

Her research found some cynicism among various faith groups where, for instance, policy-makers or practitioners claimed 'grass roots legitimacy' on the basis of people's involvement without actually engaging with their values and practices.

Similarly, Greg Smith, in research carried out in Preston on behalf of the University of East London, found that statutory agencies have great difficulty in relating to the diverse range of faith communities and their widely varied memberships.

Many Christian churches do not give community involvement or social care a high priority in their mission, and ordinary members of congregations in those that do, generally find it hard to think strategically, relate their spirituality or faith to wider policies, or see beyond the day-to-day needs of people in their immediate neighbourhoods.

There is little evidence, he says, to suggest that the majority of members or leaders of local mosques, gurdwaras, temples or synagogues are any more outwardly focused or strategically engaged than Christians. Drawing on recent research for the Home Office, Professor Lowndes explains three rationales for involvement of faith groups. These relate to people's motivation for participation, their capacity to engage, and the hoped for outcome.

In the booklet, she presents a 'diagnostic tool', devised with Rachael Chapman at De Montfort University which identifies the part faith groups can play in achieving the goals of civil renewal at four levels – communities, organisations, networks and leadership.

Amanda Williams | EurekAlert!
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