This week the British Charity Commission issued a draft consultation document that indicates that under a recently passed law, churches will be obliged to prove their works are of "public benefit."
Until recently, societies founded in Christian philosophies understood religious work, including that of "advancing religion" and prayer, to be of natural benefit to society and therefore churches have been exempt from taxation to varying degrees.
Since the passage of the Charities Act in November 2006, that presumption has been officially and specifically removed. Starting in 2008, religious charities must prove that what they do is of "public benefit," according to criteria set out by the heavily secularized British authorities.
The Charity Commission chairman, Dame Suzi Leather, wrote in the Guardian, "For the first time in 400 years of charity legislation, the law will explicitly require those charities that advance education, religion or relieve poverty to demonstrate that they deliver public benefit."
Leather was made chairman of the Charity Commission in August 2006, having previously served as the head of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, (HFEA). Under Dame Leather's leadership the HFEA obtained an international reputation as one of the most permissive and anti-life government regulatory agencies in the world.
Leather was made a Dame of the British Empire last year for "services to the regulation of infertility treatment and embryo research," and is a member of the Christian Socialist Movement that promotes "progressive" socialist and leftist causes frequently opposed to traditional Christian social values.
The proposed Charities Act regulations, following closely on the heels of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, have been received with trepidation.
Fr. Tim Finigan, head of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life wrote that the regulations are just the next step in the "implacable secularist agenda of modern Britain."
The requirement, he said, "betrays a dogmatic secularism that denies the value of religious faith in itself. The London-based anti-religious clique that is directing public policy would like to see religious charities judged solely in terms of material results because they hate our Christian moral teaching."
Cloistered communities of Catholic monks and sisters are particularly concerned since their work is entirely in the spiritual realm of prayer. Abbess Paula Fairlie of the Benedictine monastery in Chester told BBC Radio 4's Sunday Program that she did not know how she was expected to demonstrate how the public work of the sisters, hosting retreats on their property, is of benefit to the public.
She said, "You are really asking me to prove that something intangible like air and sunshine and prayer are for the benefit of humankind. The obvious answer is that they are so obviously beneficial that you take them for granted."
Assurances to religious organizations from Dame Leather have met with skepticism. Leather said that although "intangible" benefits would be considered in the criteria, "prayer by itself" is not sufficient to qualify.
"For completely closed religious communities which have no contact with the outside world, it will be very difficult for them to retain charitable status," she told Radio 4's Sunday Program.
Finigan responds, "In the modern UK with its increasing ‘dictatorship of relativism', you may preach about healthy eating, non smoking, global warming, and recycling. But the teaching of Christ — that's proselytizing."
Dame Leather said in the introduction of the consultation document that the Charity Commission hopes to hear from as many interested parties as possible over the coming months. The consultation ends June 6, 2007.