Government plan for churches and charities to deliver health care

London, UK - The Government and the Church of England have outlined a blueprint to help churches, charities and local authorities work better together to deliver community services such as health, day care and post offices.

While the Government is not giving extra funding to the church to adapt any of its 16,000 worship buildings for better community use, it pledged to help combat the "squeamishness" often felt by funding providers when it comes to giving grants to faith groups.

In a report backed by Culture Secretary Andy Burnham and launched at the London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields today, the Cabinet Minister and Financial Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Timms, along with other ministers, say faith communities play a "valuable" but often unrecognised role in local communities and were there for the "long term" particularly in deprived areas.

"Faith communities bring distinctive resources to local communities, supporting and empowering individuals, embracing a rich diversity of experience, skills and people motivated to change their communities for the better," the ministers say in a foreword to the report, Church and Faith Buildings: Realising the Potential.

The document says funding and commissioning bodies can be fearful that faith-based organisations may engage in proselytism. There needs to be a "clear" understanding that if a faith-based organisation accepted funding for providing public services, those services should be open to all, the report says.

One of the main faith providers of social services in the UK is the Salvation Army, which is scrupulous about not attempting to evangelise those using its services. But many funders still fear that faith bodies, especially Christian ones, will attempt to target the vulnerable and needy people they are helping for conversion.

The document includes a list of the major sources of funding to help churches and other groups adapt themselves to provide public services. It does not consider the funding of the "general upkeep" of historical buildings for activities such as worship or preserving heritage for the benefit of education and leisure.

The publication of the document comes as the Church of England seeks to highlight its role as the "largest voluntary organisation" in the country with a network of 16,000 parish churches covering inner city and rural areas.

According to the Bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, there are now more parish churches than post offices and already 12 post offices operate from church buildings.

The document comes after a study published last year by the Von Hugel Institute at Cambridge University attacked the Government over its alleged failure to understand the "huge" contribution to social welfare made by the Church of England.

Congregations, clergy and volunteers nationwide run an enormous range of services including post offices and cafes, asylum rights centres, homeless outreach and bereavement counselling services and youth clubs.

In his foreword Bishop Chartres says: "The UK ceased to be a confessional state in 1829 and thereafter successive governments have been committed to a free market in religious ideas. Frequently, however, where public policy and the aspirations of the communities of faith have coincided, partnerships in achieving defined social goals have been possible. At the same time, buildings owned by faith communities are often places which serve a wider constituency than that of regular worshippers. A good example of this is the tradition of hospitality observed in Sikh Gurdwaras. So it goes without saying that everything in this paper applies to all faiths.

"The parish churches of England, however, offer special opportunities because of their distinct legal position. Parishioners who are not worshippers have legal rights to service from the parish church; for example the right to be married. The election of Churchwardens by voters qualified by residence and not necessarily members of the congregation is another aspect of a relationship with the whole of a local community which is enshrined in law."

He says the use of churches for post office and other community services is "an example of a growing trend to return church buildings to their original function as places of worship and also places of assembly and celebration for the whole of the local community."

He continues: "This ancient tradition has in more recent times been overlaid by a distaste for mixing the sacred and secular but this dichotomy is increasingly being challenged."

Encouragement from Government and regional authorities will be a powerful incentive for individual churches to improve their kitchen and toilet facilities, he says.

"At a time of financial stringency when the green agenda is growing in significance it obviously makes sense to maintain and develop such a significant national asset. It would cost billions to replicate the country wide social infrastructure which already exists in the network of buildings the Church of England manages on behalf of the whole community. Any assistance would of course depend on a proven determination to equip the churches for wider community access but a relatively modest investment could yield large dividends," the bishop says.