The EPS and the Caleb Foundation submitted this joint response to the DUP paper on Faith Groups - August 2010. 

 

EMPOWERING FAITH GROUPS TO BENEFIT COMMUNITIES

Joint Response from the Evangelical Protestant Society and the Caleb Foundation.

Our two organisations welcome the paper "Empowering Faith Groups to Benefit Communities". We are representative of a wide spectrum of evangelicalism in Northern Ireland.

The Caleb Foundation is essentially a lobby group which seeks to articulate the views and concerns of a significant number of evangelicals who are members of, or involved in, a range of mainstream Protestant churches outside the three co-called "main" (ie larger) Protestant denominations. These include people from churches such as Reformed Presbyterian, Independent Methodist, Elim Pentecostal, Congregational, Free Presbyterian, Baptist, Evangelical Presbyterian, Church of the Nazarene and Congregational Reformed.

The Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS), which is also represented on the Caleb Foundation Council of Reference, aims to promote and defend historic Biblical Protestantism in Northern Ireland and beyond. The EPS Council and supporters are drawn from virtually all the mainstream Protestant denominations.

As independent Christian organisations with no affiliation to any political party, it is our duty to be "salt and light" in society, and we reserve the right to disagree with or criticise the decisions and policies of the Executive or of the DUP (or, for that matter, any other political party).  There are times when the Church, by virtue of her calling by her Lord, will find herself in conflict with the powers of this world. If that means crying out as a voice in the wilderness against any political system, then we are prepared to do so. Our primary duty is not to please or honour men - even good men - but to please and honour God.

However, we also have a duty to pray for, and support, those in authority in our land, and we welcome any opportunity to play a constructive role as good citizens in this part of the United Kingdom.

We welcome the tone and content of this consultation paper and are pleased that it acknowledges the positive role played by churches/faith groups in society. The paper is, we feel, an acknowledgement on the part of the DUP of the importance of connecting (or, perhaps, re-connecting) with a crucial constituency. The return of devolution in May 2007 has, to put it mildly, presented us all with major challenges. It has had a significant impact upon the evangelical community and, whilst views among Christians are varied (as is reflected in our two organisations) it is probably fair to say that there has been some disappointment that Ulster's evangelical heritage and values have not been as centre-stage as they ought to have been.  We fully recognise that Northern Ireland society is becoming increasingly secular and, as it does so, it is important that the DUP, which historically has defended Biblical standards in society, is seen to be the champion of those standards in these changing times.

We would wish to play as positive a role as possible in taking forward some of the suggestions contained in the paper, and we look forward to further engagement with the DUP on these and a range of other issues.

Our observations and comments follow the headings and order in which the various issues are addressed in the DUP paper.

OPPORTUNITIES

This is a very important section of the paper.

Paragraph 4 refers to the use of buildings and facilities. We accept that these could be more widely utilised, but it also needs to be recognised that there are churches and groups whose view of the world, the Kingdom of God and the nature and role of the Church places limitations upon both the activities suitable for such facilities and also the degree of openness of access to them. This should be acknowledged and respected in any final conclusions.

We fully support the suggestions in paragraphs 5 and 6 in relation to Councils, and we would actively encourage a greater degree of active effort on the part of local government to engage with, seek the views of, and take on board the thoughts and concerns of local churches/faith groups. However, as stated above in relation to paragraph 4, Councils need to be aware of differing perspectives in the various churches and we would therefore caution that any liaison with churches should not pool groups together into single panels or committees, but should respect the diversity that exists.

We welcome the party's commitment in paragraph 7 to have regular meetings with groups such as Caleb and EPS. This indicates an acceptance that the "four main churches" are not the only key players. We would be very keen to ensure that these meetings would be fairly regular and that, apart from meeting with the party leader, structured and regular meetings would also be set up with other senior DUP politicians such as Ministers. 

Whilst we broadly welcome the idea of a faith forum (paragraph 8) we await with interest to see what emerges out of DSD. The whole concept of a faith forum needs further work. Even within single denominations there can be differing, even conflicting, thoughts on the way ahead for that particular church.

We feel that there has been an over emphasis upon what has been termed the "four main churches."  This title has been not only lazy and an over-simplification - a better description might be "the four largest denominations" - but it has left others, outside those four, feeling inferior and often powerless and voiceless. (This feeling, in essence, led to the establishment of the Caleb Foundation). Indeed, even within the four, there are to be found a very wide variety of distinguishable perspectives and agendas. 

We would therefore suggest that a different approach be adopted. We would propose that Government, instead of approaching a faith forum in a way that included the 'four main churches' along with others from within professing Christianity, might consider a more meaningful categorisation. 

For example we would suggest a breakdown as follows: 

  • Roman Catholicism.
  • Protestant ecumenism - incorporating the ecumenical wings of the Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland and the Methodist church.
  • Evangelical wings of larger Protestant denominations.
  • Mainstream Evangelicals outside the three main Protestant denominations.

We would suggest that this kind of approach would give a voice to each brand of professing Christianity. 

Similar consideration might also need to be given to the categorisation of non-Christian faith groups. 

Paragraph 9 refers to faith advisors. We see this as a positive proposal and we would welcome the creation of a means to get the views of Churches/faith groups directly to the heart of Government. However, as mentioned above (especially in relation to paras 4, 5 and 6) we are concerned about the dangers of stereotyping and pooling churches under a generic grouping. This has had an adverse impact on evangelicals and has often left them marginalised or excluded. So, while we are relaxed about the precise arrangements and would be willing to work with either the concept of faith advisors or as part of a round table forum, it is vital that recognition be given to the diversity which exists within the various strands of Christianity.

We regard paragraph 10 as crucial, and those areas outlined in that paragraph -moral and family values -are, in our view, very major concerns as society develops in this post-conflict era. We are committed to genuine civil and religious equality for all, but we fear that the equality agenda fails to achieve such equality. On the contrary, it has been largely controlled and manipulated by a mind-set which is opposed to Biblical Christianity, and it seems to us that a hierarchy of rights has been developed where Biblical standards are to be sacrificed where necessary in order to ensure that alternative values might be developed and protected. 

Christians are currently discriminated against in some working environments. For example, the current situation around the issue of civil partnerships discriminates against Christians on the grounds of their religious beliefs. We are opposed in principle to the very concept of civil partnerships for homosexual couples. We believe that such official recognition was a step in the wrong direction. We are very strongly of the view that to have taken such a step and introduced such a facility without giving any accompanying protection for the individual member of staff with a religious conscience on what is a practice or behaviour as opposed to a condition or state of being was an oversight that ought to be addressed.

This could be done without actually removing the facility itself.  It could be done by way of a 'conscience clause' for the individual member of staff while retaining the delivery of the service. This may well require a legislative change, but we believe that if so, then such a legislative change should be sought.

We would also wish to express our view that in the provision of goods and services - church buildings, services, programmes or facilities should be exempted from any regulations regarding the provision of such services to homosexuals etc.

Christian right of conscience is not properly protected in the workplace, and it is our very firm view that this area needs to be closely reconsidered. 

We are encouraged that the DUP shares some of our concerns in these sorts of areas and we are willing to give whatever assistance we can to help address them.

SERVICES

We welcome the acknowledgement of the value of the work currently being carried out by numerous churches/ faith groups. We agree with the general thrust of this section and look forward to seeing specific proposals in this regard.

FUNDING

We agree with the views in this section. There has long been a problem here.

Not only is there excessive red-tape, but the qualifying criteria for funding are often couched in terms which prevent churches from applying as they will be required to compromise their principles. 

It is our considered view that there has been a structural institutional failure with certain funding bodies, and that the most obvious of these has occurred within the Community Relations Council (CRC).

The CRC has in the past funded publications that went so far as to brand mainstream evangelical groups as "extreme," yet we are unable to find any similar funding to allow mainstream evangelical groups to explain their basis, identity and ethos to onlookers. 

We also believe that there has been a very real failure on the part of CRC when it comes to the issue of core funding, and a disproportionately small amount of this type of funding has been made available to mainstream evangelical groups. We would further contend that there has been an accompanying failure on the part of CRC to carry out any proper audit of such funding decisions or to put any kind of effective corrective measures in place.

When Caleb was founded, it became clear to us that no funding would be provided even though Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), a broadly evangelical group which supported the NIO's policies at the time, was well funded. It is time for a greater balance.

NON- LOTTERY FUNDING

We agree with the sentiments expressed in this section and welcome the willingness to explore alternative funding avenues. 

We are particularly keen to see some of the dormant accounts funding directed towards churches, especially where those churches provide a service in what can often be in socially disadvantaged areas (eg running activities and meetings for young people and providing transport to and from such activities).

VOLUNTEERING

We agree with the sentiments expressed this section.

RECOMMENDATIONS

We welcome the recommendations.

 Signed

Wallace Thompson, Secretary, EPS

 Robert McEvoy, Secretary, Caleb Foundation

 5 August 2010