By Rabbi Josh Levy
CEO of The Movement for Reform Judaism, writing on behalf of Progressive Judaism
In July 2020, I attended my first meeting of the Government’s Covid ‘Places of Worship Taskforce’ on behalf of Progressive synagogues in the UK.
In a series of meetings, over the course of almost 18 months, this group of leaders from across the religious spectrum in the UK discussed the challenges of the pandemic for faith communities: the immediate challenges of reopening (and closing) places of worship; social distancing; attendance caps; ventilation; testing; and whether it was possible to make singing safe. Then, from 2021, our focus turned to how our faith communities could support and encourage take up of the Covid vaccine.
It was an extraordinary space – robust and respectful.
At times, we were among the first to hear the challenging news that our institutions would be asked to close their doors for communal worship, or that numbers for lifecycle events including funerals would be reduced.
From the perspective of interfaith cooperation and understanding, it was extraordinarily powerful, with a sense of shared purpose.
The civil servants, scientists and Government ministers who attended were thoughtful. They listened and cared deeply in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. In parallel they held roundtables with faith groups to fully understand the needs of different communities.
And then the meetings stopped.
Once the immediate need had passed, the idea of regular, structured government engagement with religious leaders was no longer a priority. This was a missed opportunity and a huge loss for faith relations in this country.
These meetings were initiated by Colin Bloom, Independent Faith Engagement Adviser, whose review ‘Does Government Do God’ was published this week. Among his recommendations is the return of this kind of effective engagement programme as part of a broader strategy to engage with faith communities and with people of faith. He states that government should work to increase religious literacy and better support faith communities to address the challenges that they face.
Progressive Judaism welcomes a report that puts these questions to the forefront.
We agree that there is a need for better and broader religious literacy across the Civil Service, as well as a greater connection with and advocacy for faith groups. We also support measures to ensure that religion is a force for good in this country, addressing the challenges of harmful practices, extremism and exploitation.
It is vital that government better understand the differences between faith communities in this country, and within them, and recognise the importance of speaking with the spectrum of groups within communities, as it did so effectively in the diverse and representative faith task forces and roundtables during the pandemic.
We encourage the government to take Colin Bloom’s report seriously, to understand the role that we play in the UK and as partners to government, and to recognise the importance of faith communities as one of the essential building blocks of civil society.
This is not the first time that the importance of engagement with faith has been discussed in this way. It was, for example, part of the ‘Big Society’ conversations of the early 2010s.
We cannot be recognised only in crisis, financial or social, seen only as service providers, plugging holes.
There must be a fundamental shift in attitude that recognises we are a crucial voice in the day to day and in the values that make up this country; that we are a voice that deserves a platform and established mechanisms for direct communication.
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