Councils should make better use of churches to bring communities together

Dr Madeleine Pennington

As if one were needed, Croydon Council’s issue of a section 114 notice in November offered a further stark reminder of the financial challenges facing local authorities. After a decade of austerity, the pandemic is stretching (and will stretch further) councils already running on a shoestring – and one consequence of reduced public spending is a reliance on faith and community groups to plug the gap.

This phenomenon has already led to a quiet shift in the role of faith in society. Faith-based volunteer hours rose by almost 60% from 2010-2014, and in 2015 this time contribution alone was valued at £3 billion. Between 2006 and 2016, faith-based charities were the fastest growing area of the charity sector. Two thirds of the nation’s growing number of foodbanks are now coordinated by the Trussell Trust – a Christian charity whose most recent figures show an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels in April 2020 compared to April 2019. As of 2017, 93% of Anglican churches alone were involved in foodbanks in some way.

The result is one of the unspoken paradoxes of modern society: faith is increasingly assumed to be private, and yet is becoming ever more public in some very concrete ways.

However, taking churches as a case study, research published last month by Theos think tank observes that councils’ engagement with faith groups has predominantly been driven by necessity rather than positive embrace. Nervousness around proselytism and the inclusivity of faith-based services mean that local authorities tend to work with a few churches they trust, and the level of engagement varies hugely between areas: while some councils were described as “open and willing” in this research, church-based participants in other areas felt “invisible” or viewed with “suspicion”.

At the same time, while churches are increasingly relied upon to provide necessary services, they are far less often included where the wider health and flourishing of their local communities is concerned.

This is particularly problematic given that many of the challenges facing the country (and our local communities) fundamentally go beyond a financial shortfall. The Leave campaign won on an argument that Brexit was about more than economics. So too, the pandemic is more than a public health crisis: it is an act of solidarity for individuals so profoundly to curtail their freedom to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Likewise, our response to many other critical issues facing our society – racial injustice, loneliness, our willingness to welcome migrants – rests on investing in the strength of our common relationships.

In other words, these are social cohesion challenges – and churches are uniquely placed to meet this relational need. They provide an unrivalled source of physical capital scattered equally throughout the country, acting as the social capillaries of their communities, protecting a wellspring of formal and informal leadership, convening difficult conversations between groups, motivating individual members of their congregations to give to wider society, and seeing (and enacting) the full potential of their communities where others do not. 

Most churches have also reflected deeply on the appropriate role of faith in their community work; having an open conversation about boundaries and expectations here is far preferable to writing off their contribution altogether. But neither should councils assume the “appropriate” role of faith in the community is no role at all; rather, it is churches’ desire to love and serve their neighbours which makes them so well-equipped to serve their communities in the first place.

As budgets are further slashed in the months (and perhaps years) ahead, churches will undoubtedly be called upon even more to bridge the growing chasm between need and capacity. However, if the context of those relationships can move from a reluctant “needs must” basis to one of open and compassionate collaboration, councils may well find that churches have much more to offer than they currently are. Given the steep climb ahead, that is surely a welcome revelation. 

The Church and Social Cohesion was commissioned by the Free Churches Group, and prepared independently by Theos, and published alongside a ‘how to’ booklet for policymakers and local authorities hoping to engage better with churches. Download them here.

Dr Madeleine Pennington is head of research at the Christian thinktank Theos

This article was published in the Local Government Chronicle on 1st December 2020.

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