Curbing the Prophets? Religion, political activity and the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission’s muddled but distinctly negative rhetoric since 2012 about political activities by charities could, if continued, bring them into confrontation with England and Wales’ religious leaders, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.

In much public discourse in the UK, religion and faith organisations are regarded as a different subject from “the voluntary sector” or “charities”.

This might seem odd. After all, charities for the advancement of religion account for about one fifth of all registered charities. One pound in six given to charity goes to religious charities, so this is not only an integral part of the sector but a very substantial one.

When Conservative MPs attack campaigning by charities, however, they are thinking of the likes of Oxfam, War on Want, Shelter, RSPCA, the IPPR or welfare charities criticising benefit cuts. They are not generally thinking of the churches. When historians like Colin Rochester suggest that many voluntary organisations these days “apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, are indistinguishable from private sector companies” (Colin Rochester, “Rediscovering Voluntary Action: the Beat of a Different Drum”, 2013, p.243), or the University of Birmingham team led by Matthew Hilton conclude that “Ultimately, NGOs have pursued a politics of pragmatism, in which their expertise on a single issue has been the basis of their authority, rather than their allegiance to any wider belief system”, (M.Hilton et al, “The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain”, 2013, p. 228), they appear to have excluded faith organisations from their thinking. Similarly, you will not find Bishops, priests, Imams and rabbis integrated at all consistently in “voluntary sector” gatherings such as NCVO or ACEVO meetings.

There are reasons for this separation. In important senses, religious organisations are distinct in character. They have their own mindsets, cultures and organisational networks with a history that goes back long before the concept of “the voluntary sector”, or the Charity Commission, were born. Some kinds of religious organisations see themselves as pursuing their faith over and against a hostile world (rather than as part of it), while many people in secular organisations share an assumption that religion is something for consenting adults to do in private if they must. They may find it embarrassing or actually malign. It is a divisive subject, so many secular organisations are most comfortable keeping it at arm’s length.

So it is all the more important to remember that the churches and other faith organisations are independent voluntary organisations organised around a charitable mission. Moreover, they are no longer “exempt” charities. They are now fully subject to Charity Commission regulation. In particular, they are subject to CC9, the Commission’s guidance on political activities by charities. I am not sure that either the churches and other faith organisations, or secular charities, or the Charity Commission itself, have fully taken on board the implications. One is that the rather muddled “tough guy” rhetoric of the Commission’s Board since 2012 on the subject of political activity (see my blog of 21 April 2015) would bring them into headlong confrontation with Britain’s church leaders.

Here for example is the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year: “The business of proclaiming the Good News of the saving love of Jesus Christ…and the business of seeking to transform society go absolutely together. They are indistinguishable…two sides of the same coin. You do one: you do the other” (Church Times, 27 February 2015). So much for sticking to his “knitting”, as recommended by Commission Board member Professor Gwithian Prins.

Or take the Catholic Social Teaching as enunciated by the present Pope. He recently attacked “trickle down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world…[This theory] has never been confirmed by the facts. [It] expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (Church Times, 1 May 2015). Does this come under the heading of the vaguely phrased “politicisation of charities” which the Chairman of the Commission, William Shawcross, has identified as a threat on a par with terrorist infiltration, fraud and abuse of the vulnerable?

Or listen to the Archbishop of York in January 2015: “Like the old Testament prophets, I suggest, it is essential for religion to speak truth to power. And so speaking up for the poor, the widow and the orphans flows from what the Church is and what it’s for. And it’s important for power to hear this religious voice, even if what is said is uncomfortable to hear….Concern for a society that addresses problems of poverty and other injustices in society flows out of an evangelism that has the promise of God’s kingdom at its centre” (Church Times 23 January 2015). Now place beside this (and other passages by both Archbishops in the book “On Rock or on Sand?” edited by Archbishop Sentamu) the Commission’s recent injunction to the wider charity sector as part of its comment on a Tweet by Oxfam:

“Particular care should be taken to ensure that any material does not damage the charity’s reputation, that messages are appropriate and in pursuit of its objectives and do not have any risk of being misinterpreted or perceived as party political (my italics)“.

Not only did the Archbishops fail to eliminate any risk of being perceived as party political, they were, as so often, actually accused of being party political by the Daily Mail: “The apparent priority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues is playing Left-wing politics….How depressing that – when not obsessing over gay marriage or female bishops – [the Church’s] chief function now would appear to be delivering sermons direct from the Labour Party press office”. So quite clearly in breach, Your Graces. And so it has always been: the sun comes up in the morning, Bishops are attacked by certain media and MPs for being left wing and “political”. Thus, if taken literally, (which is usually the way regulators should be taken) recent Charity Commission statements would (in the event of complaints) mean slaps on the wrist or worse administered by the Commission to the Archbishops, Cardinal, and many other people speaking out as part of their religious faith. There is something deeply inappropriate, even impertinent, about such a prospect.

To avoid such an unwelcome confrontation, the answer is for the Charity Commission to drop the tough guy rhetoric, amend the poor drafting of the comment on the Oxfam Tweet, refrain from any more destabilisation of the existing guidance, and stick with the principles and formulations of CC9 as it is. The sector – the whole sector, including religious charities – can live with CC9 and it gives the Commission all the scope it needs to protect the reputation of charities. Both secular and religious charities should reach out across the barriers and make common cause in resisting repression of their role in magnifying the voices of the powerless and playing their full part in democratic debate.

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