Read the article in context and comments left by readers:Faith groups can't fill gaps left by state, warns bishopRiazat Butt, Religious affairs correspondent
Bishop of Leicester says it would be 'completely irresponsible' for government to roll back on its responsibilities to the needyA senior Church of England bishop has warned that faith groups will not step in to fill the gap left by state spending cuts, saying it would be "completely irresponsible" to leave the care of the vulnerable in the hands of "amateurs".
The bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, who has spoken forcefully about David Cameron's proposals for a "big society", said that although faith groups were ready and willing to play a greater part in community life, their enthusiasm and engagement should not mean the government rolled back on its responsibilities to the needy.
The warning follows fears expressed by a leading charity figure this week, David Robinson of Community Links, who said massive public spending cuts threatened to undermine the big society project.
Government ministers have stressed that faith groups are vital to the success of the big society, the flagship policy of the Conservative party's election manifesto, aiming to empower local people and communities to play a greater role in public life.
But Stevens said faith groups should not be a fig leaf for dismantling vital services. "We stand ready to co-operate and play our part but we will not collude in government neglect. We can't simply take the weight of all those areas of responsibility. If there is the assumption that the church will carry that load, we will have to speak out.
"This can't be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs."
He said there was a "big question" about whether the big society was in fact a "veil for covering up a massive contraction of public support for the neediest people".
Stevens also urged faith groups to show caution, especially after communities secretary Eric Pickles said faith groups would not receive additional funding for projects. "They must be realistic and not raise expectation that they can take on the care of the elderly, children and asylum seekers. It's not going to work," said Stevens.
One example of how the church wants to play its part is Near Neighbours, a £5m project to promote community cohesion. The church has already claimed it will be more effective than the government's £61m "Prevent" programme.
Near Neighbours would focus on four areas with large Muslim populations – the M62 mill towns corridor, east London, Leicester and east Birmingham – with the aim of enabling "Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr and Mrs Patel, and Mr and Mrs Hussain" living in the same neighbourhood to relate more "positively" to each other.
Stevens said the big society offered the church an opportunity to showcase what it was doing and talk proactively to government and local government to develop its role in national life. "The church can't do it all on its own. It can have a role, not an imperialist one, but in bringing others to train, create and co-ordinate."
He pointed to the thousands of buildings, volunteers, institutions and staff that formed the Church of England network, saying no other group had such reach.
The government proposals were a chance for the church to strengthen its place in the "heart of the community".
"The big society is a description of what we do. It could well be a productive moment for the church."
Christian groups and leaders have been the most vocal in their support for the government's plans to empower communities.
In his Christmas reflection, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said the Christian faith gave society a chance to act for the common good.
Nichols told the congregation at Westminster Cathedral that British society was "capable of great generosity in the face of adversity" and that a sense of solidarity arose from disaster.
He, along with the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, have already met the prime minister to discuss the big society and the contribution of faith groups.