Our History

The concept of a Faiths Forum for the South East Region predates the existence of other Regional bodies. Developments were triggered by the Government’s original idea of regionalisation. Indeed, RAISE (Regional Action and Involvement SE ~ the Third Sector representative body in the SE Region) ~ two of SEEFF’s current Executive, Chris Rich and David Wrighton, are on the RAISE Board ~ developed from work drawing together key Regional figures at the time across the Voluntary and Community Sector and Faith Groups. The idea was to have two Regional bodies to represent the Voluntary and Community Sector (RAISE) and Faith Groups (SEEFF), recognising the different and complex networks each sector has. It was recognised that each would require infrastructure funding.

On 18 May 1999, two Church of England Directors of Social Responsibility, David Grimwood and Chris Rich, convened a meeting of church and faith leaders, and others who had shown interest, at the GOSE (Government Office for the South East) offices in Guildford, to gain support for a proposed Regional Faith Forum in the South East Region. The meeting of 60 people welcomed the proposal, and also confirmed David and Chris as the first ‘faith sector’ members of the new Regional Assembly. Since that time, four other Faith Forum members have represented the sector on the Assembly.

In the early days of the Faith Forum, a key player had been the then Bishop of Guildford, John Gladwin who, with some pre-existing status and credibility within the Region, and especially within the Christian denominations, was able to enthuse and coordinate various religious organisations to come together as a Faith Forum. The Forum met twice a year, chaired by the Bishop of Guildford and developed links with SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) and a range of Regional issues. Membership was a mix of faith and church community representatives and officers. ‘Faith in the Rural South East’ also developed as a subgroup of SEEFF, but it is clear that this group has origins which predate SEEFF.

During 2001, the Faith Forum contacted over two thousand faith groups and area church leaders, inviting them to a major conference at Westminster Central Hall. The event, which attracted around 150 people, took place on 12 September, and proved a significant and poignant occasion following the attacks on the twin towers in New York the previous day. In the meantime, it had become clear that a more robust electoral process for the Regional Assembly members was required. The existing structure was replaced by a new Faith Forum, whose membership is open to all members of faith groups and churches, and which met annually. Members directly elect their Assembly representatives, and a small Executive who manage and develop the Forum between the annual Forum meetings.

The Forum has been developed using very limited resources made available by some of the members, particularly the Social Responsibility Departments. What may appear simple tasks have proved extremely complicated, such as contacting all the faith groups in the Region, reflecting the enormous diversity in the way faith groups are structured. Despite a high level of commitment from key members, ensuring a good quality of Forum activity has proved difficult, given the resources available. However, funding was secured for a one year research project, ‘Beyond Belief?’ which audited outreach by faith groups and churches in four areas across the region during 2003. This revealed a high level of community engagement, confirming impressions gained at the 2001 Forum. (The most significant faith economic impact survey in the UK to date was carried out in the NW Region in a partnership between Faith Groups and the NW Government Office which shows that the level of economic and social impact as a direct result of the activities of Faith Groups in their local communities across the Region are major ~ far beyond what had been anticipated).

While reports indicate the first conference was able to muster a significant Muslim presence, they also suggest that subsequent conferences have been so predominantly Christian that a Rabbi attending in 2003 saw fit to publicly challenge the claim to be a multi-faith initiative, and it remained a source of frustration within the Executive, and within external Regional bodies, that SEEFF had so far been unable to attract a wider range of different faiths active in the Region.

Over the past two years renewed effort has been given to re-launch SEEFF. This has been facilitated by the arrival of a new Bishop of Guildford, Christopher Hill, and a range of meetings initiated by Bishop Christopher in order to be clear about the focus of a Regional Faith Group. Resources for infrastructure development have not been forthcoming to date and it is now recognised that these structures cannot be adequately serviced voluntarily. SEEFF needs a full-time Co-ordinator and each of the public sector Regional bodies acknowledges this point. Only recently it was admitted that across the UK work with minority groups had blurred the issue of the need to develop Faith Infrastructure. One area of work has been developed at the expense of the other, but it is to be hoped that the launch of the Government’s Inter Faith Strategy document will prove a timely opportunity for public sector agencies to get behind SEEFF.