Lewisham is characterised by a high degree of demographic transience and social atomisation and traditional bonds of neighbourhood or ethnic and national identity are not as strong as might usually be encountered elsewhere. This might well explain why religion seems to have emerged as the strongest form of social bonding and identification for many Lewisham residents. This may in turn explain why the local authority has accorded a level of prominence to religion that might be considered unusual in many other parts of Europe.
But strict secular separation seems never to have been the case in Lewisham where for many years the local authority has sought to actively engage with religious groups, particularly through a series of conference ‘Having Faith in Lewisham’ and a Faith in Lewisham Network in which the Mayor takes a prominent role. The council has a dedicated Faith and Social Action Officer and has a specific budget offering grants of up to £10,000 to faith-based organisations.
Lewisham explains its distinctive approach by pointing to the large numbers of residents who subscribe to a religion and of the rapidly growing number of groups (over 200). As already noted, this can lead to problems if not regulated, but on a more positive level these faith groups are seen as having a vital social role to play. Without ever directly engaging with the act of worship or with proselytizing, the Council believes that one of the best and most cost-effective ways of communicating with many of its residents is through their membership of faith groups.
The role of the Faith Officer has been to establish relationships and build trust, both with the Council and between different denominations. There can be tensions between groups which the officer must mediate. Usually the greatest antagonism can between different Christian denominations. From this basis of trust she can then probe more sensitive issues that might otherwise be hidden or problematic, for example sexual health or child welfare.
Now that many groups are amassing large congregations and economic power, it is expected they will begin to seek greater political influence. The British electoral system currently makes it difficult for minority interests to find representation so groups are exploring other ways of making their views known, particularly through direct contact with the Mayor. There seems to be an assumption in Lewisham that faith groups will continue to grow in size and importance and will assume greater influence and authority in the future, so rather than try to deny this the borough trying to design a system of governance that takes account of it.