Reflections from the UK
Interfaith interaction occurs in the natural course of events wherever people of different faith or belief backgrounds meet: at the water cooler or in the fields; in the classroom or school yard; when neighbours make common cause over a local issue, learning more about each other’s traditions in the process; and in many other contexts. It is often positive – but not always. An argument across the lines of a demonstration against the building of a new place of worship is, too, ‘interfaith interaction.’
Whether interfaith interaction is positive in its nature or outcomes can depend much on the conditions created for it – to how an environment has been shaped by factors such as available education, media, faith-community perspectives, and key role models. Carefully designed and delivered program, projects and events can increase the likelihood of productive encounter. They can enable people to explore each other’s religious traditions and dispel misunderstandings; encourage greater mutual understanding and respect; deal with complex and sometimes difficult histories of interaction; and develop an ability to negotiate differences well, finding ways to live and work together rooted in shared values.
A great amount of this kind of supportive interfaith work comes from volunteers who give their time and skills and should be valued and celebrated. However, there is also a need to resource adequately this ever more important area of work.
Interfaith in the UK
The UK has a rich variety of interfaith initiatives. A small number that operate at a national level, such as the International Association for Religious Freedom (British Chapter), Religions for Peace (UK), World Congress of Faiths (WCF), and the Council of Christian and Jews, go back many decades, as do a number of local groups in major cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, London, and Wolverhampton. In the past 40 years, many other organisations have emerged. For example, as indicated in the Inter Faith Network for the UK’s 2012-2013 Review, local interfaith groups now stand at around 250 in number, compared to the few dozen of the late 1980s. Interfaith issues are also much more on the agenda in schools and universities and many other contexts, such as chaplaincy.
In part this growth has been a natural product of increasing global interconnection and of growing religious diversity in the UK. It also owes much to the work of those in the churches and other faith communities both at the grassroots and through their interfaith committees and participation in interfaith organisations, as volunteers and trustees.
Local activity can accelerate when events have focused the public mind on the need for greater understanding and engagement. Significant examples of these include the tensions following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988); disturbances in some cities in the north of England in 2001; the terrorist attacks in the U.S. that year and in London in 2005; and, last year, the murder of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich, London.
The period between 2001 and 2010 saw the rise of what has been called the ‘community cohesion’ agenda. This agenda reflected increasing awareness among policy makers of the significance of how people and groups interact within a diverse society; of religious identity in the lives of many citizens; and of the significant contribution faith communities make to society.
The cohesion policy agenda reflected a recognition by Government of the importance of local and regional interfaith bodies, as well as faith communities, and was accompanied by targeted grants programs. A number of books explore this era in depth, such as Faith in the Public Realm: Controversies, Policies and Practices (2009). Two important documents from the period are the 2007 report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, Our Shared Future, which stresses the significance of faith communities, interfaith engagement and faith/civic partnership; and the 2008 Government policy document: Face to Face and Side by Side: A Framework for Partnership in our Multifaith Society.
Two key programs in the past decade, administered for the Government by the Community Development Foundation, were the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund (FCCBF) and the Faith in Action (FiA) fund. FCCBF supported faith and interfaith organisations, to strengthen their capacity to play a fuller part in civil society/community cohesion, supporting activities which brought together people from different faiths to talk, network, and learn from one another. FiA supported faith and interfaith projects and was open to faith, interfaith, voluntary, and community sector organisations at national, regional, and local levels in England. It also supported the development of regional faith forums. These funding programmes no longer operate.
With the change of administration to the current Coalition (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) Government, with a strongly localist policy agenda, there has been a general move away from centrally funded schemes. One large program, centrally funded in part, is Near Neighbours, an initiative of the Church of England and the Church Urban Fund, which uses the Church of England’s infrastructure to work with grassroots communities in multi-faith localities in England to develop positive relationships and work together to make a difference in their local community. A smaller-scale Government funded program, called Together in Service, is administered by Faith in Action. It aims to celebrate faith-based social action and support multi-faith volunteering projects at local level.
At the UK level, the Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN) has received strategic funding from the Government supporting its work since 2001. This forms part of a wider pattern of funding.
IFN was founded in 1987 to “advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain, including an awareness both of their distinctive features and of their common ground” and to promote good relations between people of different faiths in the UK.”
It does this through linking national faith communities, interfaith organisations, and educational bodies in membership; sharing good practice through organising regular meetings and through its website and publications; providing advice and information both to existing initiatives and those in development; raising awareness within wider society of the importance of interfaith issues; and developing programs to increase understanding about faith communities, including both their distinctive features and areas of common ground.
The Larger Picture
TIO asked me to address the recent availability of public funding in the UK since in the United States such resources are unavailable except for providing direct social services. But it should be emphasized that Government funding is only one factor in the support and promotion of interfaith activity in the UK. Interfaith engagement arises from the engagement of faith communities, and they have a central place in developing interreligious understanding and cooperation. IFN is an independent charity, with a multi-faith board, and is funded in a way which supports a work program developed by its trustees. The same is true of most local interfaith bodies which receive support from their local authorities.
Securing funding for ‘interfaith’ is a challenge for most. Relatively few charitable trusts or foundations fund interfaith activity, and most will only support particular projects or provide core running costs in an organization’s early years. At the same time, there is a growing number of interfaith bodies seeking funding, and the current economic climate, including cuts in public expenditure, has seen some local interfaith groups lose funding.
Private sector sponsorship is sometimes available, but businesses, fearing controversy, can be wary of events or projects involving ‘religion.’ ‘Gifts in kind,’ such as offers of meeting venues, can be helpful. Membership fees play a part, but rarely cover more than the most basic outgoings of a group. Some interfaith organisations are now providing services such as diversity training and religious literacy training to move program objectives forward while generating income.
Some questions which have surfaced in discussions about funding in recent years are shared below. The first three apply to all voluntary organisations:
How can we ensure that the terms of any grants or sponsorship respect our independence and our purposes and principles?
How can we best monitor, evaluate, and use support appropriately?
How do we avoid the cycle of short-term grants leading to growth of work, followed by the termination of funding without replacement resources?
Additional questions arise in interfaith contexts:
Could accepting state funding constrain, or be seen as potentially constraining, the ability of faith communities to ‘speak truth to power’?
If we accept greater funding from some faith communities than others, could it lead to a perception of imbalance in terms of influence?
If we draw a significant portion of funding support from secular sources, including Government, may this impact on the sense of ‘ownership’ by faith communities?
How do we handle concerns about funding support from funders (here or overseas) whose religious or political connections or views are not seen as acceptable by all our members?
Foundations tell us they will only fund work which can be evaluated with ‘hard evidence.’ How can we establish evaluation metrics without over-focusing on projects where data is most easily gathered?
Significant funding is available from a body which runs a national lottery. Some faith groups we link to have objections to gambling. How do we proceed on this?
In short, the complexities in establishing, maintaining, and resourcing interfaith initiatives are high. But as our world grows ever more interconnected and populations of countries more diverse, this vital work continues to grow in importance, and ways need to be found to support and nurture it at every level.