Coronavirus has turned our lives upside down in so many ways over the last few weeks and caused us to find reserves that we didn’t know existed. Among them is the impact on people of faith and belief, and the way that our faith and/or belief helps us to deal with it.
Today is Spy Wednesday, part of Holy Week before Easter on Sunday. As a Christian, I find it hard to believe that churches will be closed over Easter, the most significant festival of the religious calendar. Live-streaming a regular Sunday service with only the priest in the church is one thing. But Easter? I can’t quite get my head round it.
Today is also the start of Passover in the Jewish calendar, a time when families gather together to share the seder plate. Vaishaki falls next Monday, an important festival for both Hindus and Sikhs that is usually celebrated with communal fairs and processions. And I know my Muslim colleagues will be thinking about the month of Ramadan, a time where food and prayer are usually shared with the community. All of that will be quiet this year across the UK, with no gatherings that extend beyond individual households. How odd does that feel?
Across all faiths, the loss of communal worship feels particularly hard – in a different category from the other constraints that we need to observe. We don’t have to be with other people to meet our religious observances, but coming together is an important part of the community dimension to faith and belief that sits alongside our private faith.
At the same time, as we all deal with disruption to our daily lives - necessary to keep ourselves and others safe - faith and belief are important anchors, helping people to cope. Churches, synagogues and mosques are responding – never have so many sermons been uploaded to YouTube! – and also supporting wider efforts to look after those who may be isolated and vulnerable. All the positive qualities of faith communities are out in force.
And that is typical of the amazing support that I have had as Diversity Champion for Faith & Belief. From my first conversations with cross-government networks to the formal creation of the Diversity Champion role in October 2017 and then growing the group of departmental champions, I’ve been held by people who want to support the agenda.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last two and a half years. We have a fantastic group of network leads and champions covering departments and arm’s length bodies, individual faith and belief groups and a growing number of interfaith networks. With their help we developed and launched the faith and belief toolkit in June last year, guiding line managers and staff alike on faith inclusion in the workplace. We’ve built a drumbeat of activity focused on Civil Service Live in June/July and Inter Faith Week in November. We’ve had moving events to commemorate the Christchurch massacre as well as celebrations of Eid, Diwali, Easter and the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
Most importantly, though, we have brought faith and belief into the light and solidly established it as an important part of our diversity and inclusion agenda. Not everyone wants to talk about their faith or belief, but it’s important that those who do should feel that they can bring that part of themselves to work as they would any other.
So my final message as Faith & Belief Champion is the same as my initial one, back in my first blog as Champion – thank you! Thank you to my fellow Permanent Secretaries and Departmental Faith and Belief Champions, to the cross-government and departmental networks and countless others who have made all of this possible.
And thank you in particular to the Civil Service Diversity & Inclusion Team who have supported me over the last two years – in particular Nikita Mistry, Natalie Ogene and Qayum Mannan our Faith and Belief leads. They have helped me refine my priorities and identify the actions that will make the most difference in improving faith literacy and encouraging more open debate about faith and belief. And with their help I know that my successor as Faith & Belief Champion, with the wider community, will continue to take this agenda forward.
With the help of Faith & Belief champions, I developed a set of priorities for action that will underpin much of what we do going forward. These are:
- Amplify our dialogue about faith and belief in the Civil Service
- Celebrate our shared values and the opportunities we have to work together
- Facilitate difficult conversations where we need to
Further information on the priorities and what they entail can be found in the Faith and Belief Toolkit.