People, Place, and Purpose: Churches and Neighbourhood Resilience
Paul Bickley explores the role of churches in building neighbourhood resilience – helping them overcome challenge and disruptive change. (2018)
Paul Bickley on how churches can foster resilience in the face of Britain’s departure from the EU. 22/11/2018
Across Britain churches are stockpiling instant coffee, rich tea biscuits and that strange weak orange juice served after the service.
Or perhaps not. Government departments, local authorities, businesses, charities, and even the armed forces are preparing for the post–Brexit future. Aside from the odd exception, though, churches don’t seem to think there’s much of an issue.
Out of that list of institutions, churches and religious charities are as close, if not more so, to the coal face in vulnerable communities, running a huge number and variety of social action initiatives (33,000 in the Church of England alone, according to recent statistics). All the more surprising then that there has been little thinking on how churches and faith–based organisations might be called upon to help, even though the chances of a disorderly Brexit seem to be growing.
Given the context, it’s not ‘remoaning’ to talk about the implications of Brexit, particularly for those regions which are already struggling. The Local Government Association calculates that local authorities will have lost 60p in every £1 they receive from national government by 2020 – alongside others, churches are already working hard to take up at least some of the strain. Even an orderly Brexit could make things worse: forecasts suggest that even if there is a comprehensive trade deal, the GDP of the North East of England could shrink by 11% (without such a deal, regional GDP could shrink by as much as 16%). Struggling neighbourhoods – including those that voted to leave the European Union – are more likely to pay a Brexit surcharge than benefit from a Brexit dividend.
These communities themselves are now deeply ambivalent about the future. Polling conducted for Theos by ComRes shows that 50 percent of respondents from the North East do not believe that the economy will improve after we leave the EU (compared to 39 percent nationally). Forty percent think there will be fewer jobs (compared to 30 percent nationally). Over half of people in the North East think that there will be less investment in public services (compared to 37 percent nationally). Only 12 percent of people in the North East agree (and 51 percent disagree) that ‘people from different communities in my area will get on better after we leave the EU’.
Theos recently published People, Place and Purpose: Churches and Neighbourhood Resilience in the North East. The report argues that, while churches and faith–based community organisations have been engaged in the task of meeting basic necessities, they should develop new approaches to social and public action built around resilience – that is, the capacity of individuals [or communities] to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well–being. The report argues that churches should shape activity around three domains: social, physical and spiritual capital.
The first – social capital – describes not just the relatively high levels of volunteering seen in churches, but also the knowledge that vulnerability is usually rooted in an absence of sustaining relationships. Churches can and should be asking how they can draw people into mutually supportive networks where ‘beneficiaries’ can also be invited to contribute, as well as meeting immediate needs.
The second – physical capital – sees that common spaces are essential to neighbourhoods, but that they are disappearing rapidly. A recent essay for the Local Trust calls the scale of our (?) loss of community space ‘terrifying’: 28,000 pubs have closed since the 1970s, 121 libraries closed in 2016, 600 youth centres closed between 2012 and 2016, 1,200 children’s centres have shut since 2010. Church buildings are often the only common spaces left. Active communities can do a lot with a little, but realistically they need more than what are often crumbling Victorian barns. Community Asset Transfer provided one way in which local assets were retained for community use. This legislation should be extended to other public authorities (not least NHS Property Services, which is currently overseeing a massive transfer of public assets to the private sector).
The third aspect – spiritual capital – is both the most intangible but arguably the most important. If the Brexit vote was driven by raw frustration in communities that have fallen behind, we ought to be thinking hard about what it means for these neighbourhoods to experience a sense of meaning, purpose and future. Churches should work to replace the ‘if only’ stories (if only… those jobs were still here, we got the same investment and attention as elsewhere) with ‘what if’ stories (what if… we could set up a community land trust, we could train young people in money management so they never end up in debt). Public acts of celebration, and collective moments where local identities are formed and articulated, can be as important as ‘hard’ welfare interventions.
At our report launch in Newcastle last week, academic Mark Shucksmith rightly said that communities don’t want to be resilient if resilience means we get to do whatever we want to them. If a community is struggling, isn’t it their fault for not being resilient? Resilience shouldn’t be another name for communities being left to the elements (in the report, for instance, we support the idea of a Community Wealth Fund to begin to reinvest in neighbourhoods which realistically are unlikely to be swept up in existing regeneration programmes). At the same time, there is no realistic prospect of a return to the status quo ante in terms of public services. Even if there was, more money and more services don’t make good communities. Relationship, common action, and hope do.
In 12X days we will leave the European Union. It will be years before we know whether this is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing. There’s a possibility we will see much disruption and difficulty in the short term. In truth this will only sharpen the case for a change in approach from churches that is long overdue.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.