LBWF and faith groups: a ‘gay friendly’ council does business with a church that thinks same sex relations are ‘immoral and sinful’, and guess what gives?

A recent post on this blog (see links), which broadly raised the question of how – if at all – LBWF should interact with faith groups that do not subscribe to its social cohesion and equity policies, brings to mind another troubling episode, which was briefly mentioned here in 2019, but in the light of events perhaps deserves a little more coverage.

The bones of the story can be summarised thus.

In 2015, LBWF announced that, as part of a broader plan to improve Cann Hall and Cathall wards in South Leytonstone, it was going to build a café, with glazed extension, at the Wesleyan Church on Harrow Green, costing £83,000, which the latter would then be subsidised to run as a community facility. 

After some delay while the details were clarified, work in earnest started two years later, spurred on by the LBWF’s ‘Programme Manager – Town Centres’, local councillor Sally Littlejohn (she of the Cann Hall mural fiasco), and the project architect, Jan Kattein.

Planning permission was sought and granted; LBWF approved the Wesleyan Church’s business plan; and by July 2018 Mr. Kattein was writing excitedly about ‘tendering several contractors within a month’.

Yet, concurrently, it emerged that there was a rather big fly in the ointment. For while LBWF had long been an active member of Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity, and took pride in being exceptionally ‘gay friendly’, the Wesleyan Church viewed homosexuality in a very different light, as the following paragraph in its publicly posted ‘Articles of Religion’ demonstrated:

‘God’s plan for human sexuality is that it is to be expressed only in a monogamous lifelong relationship between one man and one woman within the framework of marriage. This is the only relationship which is divinely designed for the birth and rearing of children and is a covenant union made in the sight of God, taking priority over every other human relationship. We adhere to the teachings of Scripture regarding gender identity, sexual conduct, and the sacredness of marriage, and believe that sexual relationships outside of marriage and sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are immoral and sinful’.

Disquieted by this, some local residents approached LBWF and asked for a re-think, but found it difficult to make much impact.

As a sop, LBWF asked the Wesleyan Church about its ‘community engagement’ activities; the Wesleyan Church forwarded a ‘Marketing and Promotions brochure’ plus the assurances that ‘We are an equal opportunities employer and are registered with the Charities Commission’ and ‘our services…are open to all’; and, as far as can be ascertained from correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, neither party ever broached the subject again.

In the event, little of this mattered in practical terms, because in September 2018, the Wesleyan Church abruptly pulled the plug, and, significantly, not because of some disagreement over principles in general, or homosexuality in particular, but purely because LBWF had taken far longer to get the project off the ground than ‘originally promised’, there was not enough money on the table to run the café, and more broadly it now had ‘minimum confidence in the Council to deliver’. 

Quite why, in this case, LBWF was so willing to compromise its social cohesion and equity policies remains opaque. But it is reasonable to speculate that what trumped all was narrow political considerations, and particularly the desire to reassure residents in Cann Hall and Cathall that, as places like Walthamstow were regenerated and provided with new facilities, they hadn’t been forgotten.

The recent post referred to ended by suggesting that in future LBWF should require that those seeking any degree of public money, support, or even official recognition sign up to a simple equalities statement, which pledges them to desist from bigotry (defined as ‘obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief, opinion, or faction; in particular, prejudice against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group’).

What’s been recounted here offers further support for this idea, albeit from a rather different perspective.

For a statement of the type described will not only provide clarification to faith groups, and so on, about what is expected of them should they engage in relations with LBWF, it will also discourage LBWF from double-dealing in the way described.

In short, it will concentrate minds on all sides as to their obligations.

One final point.

This post emphatically is not an argument for restricting freedom of speech.

Faith groups, as citizens in general, are entitled to express opinions that are lawful, even if they appear offensive to others.

However, councils, like other democratically elected bodies, have a right when awarding public money, support, or even official recognition, to impose strings, and of course already do so in relation to a number of issues (for example, they typically require that grant expenditure should be purposeful, and accounted for).

It goes without saying that faith groups are free to decide whether they want to engage with councils or not, and if they don’t like the strings that are attached, like everyone else, they can campaign to get them changed. 

Related Posts

Islamic extremism in Walthamstow: the Charity Commission investigates two Muslim charities over controversial statements made in youth programmes, but LBWF must intervene, too.

‘Public realm and shop front improvements’ in South Leytonstone: dogs get their dinner, while the area’s real problems are forgotten

Redeveloping Waltham Forest: some experiences from the periphery