Religion and Welfare

Questions for debate

Religion has always had a very public role in Britain providing welfare of various kinds, and has continued to do so even after the creation of the welfare state. Is it appropriate that it should continue to play this role in the 21st Century, and if so – what kinds of religion, in what ways, and in what relation to state and society? What difference does the current situation make – one in which the welfare state is under pressure and unable to deliver all the services demanded of it?

Conclusions from the debate

State-provided welfare and religion-provided welfare go hand in hand and shape one another. The early welfare state in Britain mirrored the church, and its model was ‘doing good to others’. Since the 1980s, however, the churches have shrunk and other forms of religion and spirituality have grown. We may have entered a new phase in which, as well as the old model of doing good to those in need, state and religion (of greater diversity) are more involved in empowering and supporting people to help themselves.

Research Findings

Recent studies show that faith-based organisations (FBOs) remain major providers of welfare across Europe, even where welfare systems are most extensive, as in northern Europe. The exact nature of the relationship depends on the historic relations between state, and the family, and religion and other voluntary organisations.

In the UK religious groups surrendered many ‘acute’ (intensive, short-term, interventionist) services (e.g. social work) to the state after 1945, but they remain majority providers in partnership with the state in, e.g., care for the homelessness and social housing. They also deliver many ‘slow’, relationship-based, non-statutory services e.g. visiting the elderly, lifts to hospital, support for the unemployed, meals.

Since the 1980s there has been growth of new forms of welfare and ‘wellbeing’ provision by spiritual groups and individuals – most notably in ‘holistic’, ‘mind, body, spirit’ practices and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). This is now a major part of the healthcare landscape. Other non-Christian forms of welfare provision have also grown, e.g. by Muslim groups.

The New Labour government acknowledged the importance of FBO provision, and entered into contractual relationships with those FBOs which could provide ‘universal’ services. This has led to the professionalisation of some large FBOs able to work with/for the state at local and national level, and to an internal secularization of provision – differences between faith-based and secular providers have diminished. Many non-commissioned, often smaller-scale, services remain outside this contractual relationship, and are able to be more explicit about their faith commitment.

Traditional faith-based providers, e.g. in homelessness care, are more likely to favour non-interventionist approaches (give care to all who ask for it), whilst secular provision often seeks greater intervention (require changes in the behavior of recipients of care, to help them care for themselves).

Under conditions of austerity the current Coalition government wishes to give more scope and autonomy to FBOs to deliver welfare, and hopes that cuts in funding will lead to more reliance on a self-funding ‘social enterprise’ model.

One of the most significant changes in the last 10 years has been the emergence of large Muslim organisations as major players in FB provision. These, plus evangelical Christian groups and forms of alternative spirituality, are now as important as the historic churches in welfare and health/healing provision.

“I think that the state should shrink in relation to faith, but not disappear altogether. It must play an enabling role, providing a framework which helps distribute power, wealth and capacity round providers and service users of all faiths and none. This is essential for cohesion in local areas, and nationally.”

Adam Dinham

Points of Debate and Disagreement

New Labour meddled too much with FB (faith-based) provision; the social enterprise model will allow FB provision to flourish on its own terms, without state interference. FaithDebate05_arrow The social enterprise model can never provide services for the poorest and most needy; a more equal state-faith partnership is a better way forward.
The distinctiveness of FB provision (the ‘F’ in FB) has been too severely curtailed by a secular ethos – the latter is not neutral. FaithDebate05_arrow Public services cannot have a faith profile or proselytise; their services must be universal.
There should be a mixed economy of welfare provision in a multicultural society. FaithDebate05_arrow There should be universal services for all, ensuring the same standards of care.
The ‘F’ factor makes a significant difference (e.g. to motivation, ethos, immersion in a community). FaithDebate05_arrow There is in reality little difference between FB and secular providers.
Commissioners have a bias against FB provision. FaithDebate05_arrow In practice, FB provision is not disadvantaged.
David Blunkett

David Blunkett

Practical Suggestions

More research is needed on the relative quantity and quality of faith-based and secular provision in different welfare services and arenas.

The faith-based model of non-interventionist, unconditional care – doing good to others – is likely to come under increasing pressure.

Thinking and policy on faith and welfare needs to be updated to take account of post-1980s forms of religion. The role of the historic churches is increasingly being supplemented by that of other faiths, other types of Christianity, and alternative spiritualities. This involves a shift towards new models of care and self-help.

The historic churches maintain a high level of ‘coverage’ of the country, with buildings and staff in many deprived areas, and volunteers to give time to ‘slow’ and non-professionalised welfare activities. They also have a commitment to helping all in need and not only their own members. However, their capacity is shrinking.

The nature of the ‘partnership’ between state and faith in relation to welfare provision is also changing fast and requires fresh articulation.

There is a great deal of caution on the part of those who commission welfare on behalf of the state about ‘proselytisation’ and the distinctive contribution of faith made by faith-based provision. There needs to be more clarity about the principles for differentiating appropriate and non-appropriate expressions of faith in welfare provision, or there will be a retreat to a shallow ‘neutral’ norm which may not serve particular client groups well.

“Our research concluded that faith-based homelessness services are not as different from their secular equivalents as is usually assumed. Some observers may consider this a good thing; it allays fears about proselytism, for example. But it also presents a challenge to FBOs. For, if their aim is to provide a qualitatively different service experience, and for the influence of their faith to be evident within that, it seems that many homeless people are not noticing.”

Sarah Johnsen

“There are around 54,000 places of worship in the UK and 80-90% do some welfare work, and there are 24,000 registered religious charities, which is 1 in 7 of all charities.”

Linda Woodhead

How the Media Reported the Debate

“Preaching and teaching and distributing alms go together. They are bound to – because Christian morality derives from Christian doctrine. Or do the gloriously impartial utilitarian civil servants imagine that the virtues of charitable giving and public service arise, as it were, by accident out of a vacuum?”

Peter Mullen, The Telegraph 21 March 2012

“Religious charities may be trying to change their image and convince us that they will not use their involvement in social work to evangelise, but there is no guarantee that this state of affairs would hold once they take over a large section of social welfare provision. And we are not as convinced as Sarah Johnsen that everything is hunky-dory…”

Terry Sanderson, National Secular Society 21 March 2012

Wednesday 21 March, held at 61 Whitehall

Religious bodies were once crucial welfare providers in Britain. Many Western governments are keen to bring them on board again. But times have changed. Can ‘faithful people’ still deliver, and what do they currently have to offer? Watch highlights from the debate and download podcasts of the presentations, responses and discussion below. You can also watch the full event on YouTube here. Access the press release and media coverage here. The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead.


  • Adam Dinham

    Adam Dinham

    Adam Dinham is director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London,...

    More Info
  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

    More Info
  • David Blunkett

    The Rt Hon David Blunkett is MP for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. He served in the Labour...

    More Info
  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

    More Info
  • Peter Smith

    Peter Smith

    Peter has been Archbishop of Southwark since 2010. He is Vice-President of the Catholic...

    More Info
  • Sarah Johnsen

    Sarah Johnsen

    Dr Johnsen is Senior Research Fellow at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She led the project The...

    More Info


  • Intro by Linda Woodhead

  • Intro by Sarah Johnsen

  • Intro by Adam Dinham

  • Intro by Peter Smith

  • Intro by David Blunkett

  • Welfare Questions and responses


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *