LONDON – British politician Eric Pickles has spoken of the crucial role that faith communities have to play in the government's vision of a "Big Society."
The Secretary of State made the comments at a meeting of faith leaders hosted Friday by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, were also present.
Their discussions centered on the vision of a Big Society being promoted by Prime Minister David Cameron. The Big Society is premised on the idea that everyone can do a bit more to change society, instead of only looking to the Government to solve the problems.
Pickles said the Big Society was a practical way "to put people in control of the decisions that affect them and to encourage everyone to take an active part in civic life."
He admitted that the government had not "sufficiently recognized" the difference faith communities were already making neighborhoods the length and breadth of the country.
He said the government was committed to building on the "huge" amount of experience faith groups have in "getting out into the community."
"Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved," he said.
"The new government sees it as part of the solution. I want to send an important signal that we value the role of religion and faith in public life. The days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over."
The faith leaders raised some concern about policies aimed at reducing the public deficit, which they warned could affect the vulnerable and damage community initiatives in ways that would be "hard to repair."
They welcomed the government's commitment to working with them.
A spokesperson for the archbishop of Canterbury said the faith leaders had shared their "optimism about the sense of a 'new moment' arising from the government's willingness to see Church and faith communities as providing a model to be appreciated, rather than as a group to be shaped by government."
The spokesperson said, "The approach is one of cooperation rather than co-option."