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Churches put social issues watchdog to sleep

By Paul Titus

After 30 years of acting as a social conscience for the NZ Methodist and Presbyterian, churches, the Churches Agency on Social Issues (CASI) is to close.

CASI arose when the public questions committees of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches joined forces in 1976. In 1999 the joint Public Questions Committee agreed to the participation of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Associated Churches of Christ. The four created CASI in 2000.

CASI’s brief is to monitor and research social issues, and produce resources to inform and provoke church people about those issues. Priorities CASI has set itself for 2007 are climate change, family violence, binge drinking and gambling, and crime and punishment.

Leaders of the NZ Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church and Churches of Christ met in May to discuss the future of the CASI after the Presbyterian Church indicated it wished to withdraw from the partnership. They later spoke with a Society of Friends spokesperson by phone.

In a memo to members of the CASI committee, the church leaders wrote that after a significant and wide ranging discussion, it became clear that the partner churches are moving in different directions regarding their public questions and social responsibility priorities.

They agreed to conclude CASI on December 31, 2007. The CASI member churches also recommitted themselves to work in ecumenical relationships in areas of common interest and ministry.

Methodist president Rev Dr John Salmon says the help CASI has given the churches to look at social issues and the information it has provided are very important.

“It is also important to recognise that the world and the issues have changed since CASI was established. This is an opportunity to look at different ways of gaining this type of information and exploring social issues. I would hope, as Methodists, we continue to do this in cooperation with other churches,” John says.

On its website, the Presbyterian Church states that given CASI’s year-to-year funding it was hard for it to do long-term planning. It has also been difficult to recruit Presbyterians to the CASI executive, and the need to shift the Presbyterian Church Assembly office to a smaller building meant it could not accommodate CASI staff.

The Presbyterian Church provides three quarters of the CASI budget, and a review concluded there are more effective ways for the Church to engage with social issues that affect church people and their communities.

Presbyterian Assembly executive secretary Martin Baker says the churches have moved a long way since CASI was established. They now need to find a vehicle that expresses their concerns in a way that is compatible with their resources.

“This is not a change of attitude. I would hope the church will always ask difficult questions and raise its voice to address social issues. I believe our desire to do this is as strong as ever. We now have to ask what is best way to do this.”

Martin says the Presbyterian Church has identified a number of particular concerns on which it wants to focus. These include the way society views the elderly and aging.

The Church will work with Presbyterian Support and other organisations to develop educational resources for congregations on this and other topics.