Danny Webster from the Evangelical Alliance explains what the government U-turn means for those of us running Sunday schools.
Two years ago you may have heard about proposals from the government that could have led to Sunday Schools having to register with Ofsted, and, by implication, the registration and regulation of church activities by the state.
The great news is that after thousands of Christians, other faith groups and voluntary organisations made clear their concerns about the proposals the government have this week (finally) confirmed that they will not go ahead with these plans.
This is a chance for us to say thank you to the government for listening to our concerns and also a reminder that when we speak up, when we raise our voices together, we can have an influence that is for the good of all of society.
The original plans explained
The original proposals suggested that any context that provided training or teaching for young people for a cumulative total of six to eight hours in any given week of the year would meet the threshold for registration. During the course of the consultation government ministers said that they were not trying to target Sunday Schools but did nothing to amend the proposals to allay concerns – in fact these denials were contradicted by the then head of Ofsted. They did concede that one-off summer camps or similar would be exempted, but did not provide any detail about how this would be done.
Our concern was that in trying to tackle real problems with terrorism and violent extremism the government had proposed measures that would diminish our freedom of religion. The places where children are looked after and taught – for however few hours – should have robust child protection and safeguarding measures in place. Likewise, there are vital health and safety considerations that some of the extreme stories reported in the media clearly violate. These are crucial things, but they do not need new laws or regulation.
Added to this is ongoing confusion by what the government means when it talks about tackling ‘non-violent extremism’. The government have struggled to pin down a definition, and hostility towards orthodox religious and moral beliefs means these could come under the microscope and fall foul of attempts to uphold ‘British Values’.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights echoed these concerns saying: “We are concerned that any legislation…could be used indiscriminately against groups who espouse conservative religious views (including evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and others), who do not encourage any form of violence.’”
It might sound unlikely that children will spend six hours at Sunday School, but what matters isn’t the Sunday School itself but the church that runs it, so the whole time a child is involved with church activities counts. So, if you added up youth club, choir practice and Sunday church it’s not hard to see how the threshold would be met.
It’s not just the technical details, but the principle of whether churches should have to be registered with the state and potentially open for inspection based on what they are teaching children. This starts to sound rather like state approved religion, where there is a litmus test for acceptable beliefs to be taught to children, and those that should not be allowed. And that is where our religious freedom is diminished.
A cause for celebration
We should celebrate this common sense response from the government, and remain watchful about any future proposals that seek to bring in similar regulation. We should also acknowledge the importance of Christians raising their voice, taking time to have our say so the government knows how policies such as this would not only affect the Church but many other voluntary and community activities.
While organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance might have the expertise to advise on issues that threaten the freedom of the Church, and we actively engage with government and politicians on these matters, we need you to add your voice to ours so that we are all heard.
This is a reminder that we do have a voice, and we have valuable opportunities to use it. It’s a reminder that we do live in a country with the freedom to practice our faith, and live it out in all the different aspects of our life – whether that’s teaching children or engaging with government.
This should also be an encouragement for us to step up and be a part of the answer to the very real problem that the government were trying to tackle. The Church is often the most resilient part of local communities, and we have a role to strengthen civil society and bring peace, compassion, justice and love to our neighbourhoods. We should speak out to the government when we have concern about their plans, but we must also reach out to our neighbours to build a better society.