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From Test Acts to Relational Tests: On the imminent and avoidable closure of the Inter Faith Network

From Test Acts to Relational Tests: On the imminent and avoidable closure of the Inter Faith Network

Without government funding, the IFN has announced it will move towards closure. Madeleine Pennington details the concerning implications. 09/02/2024

During the reign of the last King Charles, parliament passed a series of Test Acts.  The laws excluded anyone other than communicant members of the Church of England from public office, as part of the wider harsh persecution of Catholics and nonconformists.

Well, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” or so the saying goes. It certainly rings true of the intersection between faith and government policy in the UK today.  

As our faith landscape grows more diverse with every passing year, religious pluralism is one of the most striking features of modern Britain. It finds expression in communities from Bolton to Broadstairs. 

Such diversity is not inherently a problem for community relations, but it does mean you are less likely to have a similar worldview to the person living next door. Like any relationships, strong communities need work; social cohesion doesn’t ‘just happen’ but is the result of good hearts giving their time, energy, and money to create lasting connections across difference.  

You’d think, then, that those with power and resources – and especially those with a special responsibility for community relations – would be keen to empower those who are dedicated to bringing diverse perspectives together in positive ways. One such dedicated organization is The Inter Faith Network (IFN): a charity with just five staff (several of them part–time) that promotes and encourages interfaith initiatives up and down the country. Amongst other activities, they coordinate the nation’s annual Inter Faith Week every November. Over 1000 events were held across Inter Faith Week last year. The IFN is a shining example of the imaginative and generous spirit that is the best of Britain’s interfaith movement. It shows what can be achieved when communities work together. It is also a helpful reminder of the sheer hard work that goes into creating healthy communities more generally.  

Until quite recently, the IFN received 62% of its £342,000 income from a single government grant, with the remainder provided by a range of sources including donations from member organisations and individual supporters. In March last year, the government announced that it would end this funding, giving the charity only a day’s notice at the time. After a campaign against the decision, the government was persuaded to offer up to £155,000 of further funding, lasting until March of this year. But the grant was never received.

Rumours circulated, and last month it was reported that Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove had written to the IFN expressing that he is now “minded” to withdraw the funding because one of their trustees is a member of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Here, the relevant context is the government’s policy of non–engagement with the MCB (originating in 2009 and explored in further detail by former Theos researcher Simon Perfect here). The government’s policy of non–engagement with the MCB cuts off one of the most obvious channels for direct government engagement with many of the nation’s Muslim communities.

The IFN is clear that it does not endorse the views of its member bodies, and the trustee in question has been in post since last summer. Separate concerns have also been raised about the IFN’s lack of statement on the horrific Hamas attacks of 7th October. To this criticism, the IFN responds that it has “a longstanding policy on the making of statements which precludes direct comment on overseas events” and “recent legal advice has confirmed the appropriateness of the policy”.  

The charity has since had to issue redundancy notices to its staff and announced yesterday that it will move towards closure within the fortnight in the absence of further intervention.

As our 2014 report Making Multiculturalism Work noted – over a decade ago now – this government approach to community cohesion (i.e. cooperation only between those who already agree) fundamentally misses the point. In fact, implying there is only room for one set of values in our public life, and narrowing the range of community groups who are able to contribute, works against cohesion. Far better is an approach that brings in all those who are willing to work together, in genuine relationship across difference, for the benefit of the whole community. We need a “relational test”, rather than a Test Act. This holds just as true for government as it does for the local council, church, or mosque. Withholding funding because of political disagreement sends precisely the wrong message, indicating a lack of willingness to engage with the needs of the country as it is, in all its diversity. Worse than that, it betrays a stubborn unwillingness to empower those who do want to take on this vital work. 

Of course, this couldn’t come at a worse time. The horrific violence in Israel and Gaza has created a particularly difficult period for community relations in the UK. There was a rise in both Islamophobia and antisemitism across the country in the closing months of 2023. Against this backdrop, opportunities to unite different faith communities in moments of shared anger and grief have provided beacons of solidarity and hope. 

Interfaith work comes into its own in moments of crisis. But as Theos’ own research has found time and time again, it can only do so because of the quiet work that happens in the in–between times. This might be difficult conversations, extra cups of tea, a litter–pick, or a school faith festival. It is a far cry from the tone and apparent priorities of the misguided decision to defund the Inter Faith Network.

In 2020, Theos research summarised the historic approach to faith and cohesion policy in this way:

“Britain has become at once less religious and more religiously plural; more secular, and yet more reliant on the contribution of faith groups in the delivery of basic services. However, despite these changes, faith and social cohesion policy has consistently been dominated by a select number of issues – namely, concerns about national security and the need to repair community relations where they are already broken – to the near–total exclusion of others… Less attention has been reserved for the potential for faith to play a positive role in the nurture of such cohesive societies – or indeed, on the pursuit of cohesive societies as a positive end in its own right.”

The government’s apparent decision to defund the nation’s most prominent interfaith organization, just as it is needed most, indicates that this is as true now as it was then. It is the wrong decision.


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Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 9 February 2024

Church, Communities, Conservative Party, Faith Charities, Islam, Religion, Social Cohesion


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