In this guest blog David Barclay considers the benefits of church partnerships with secular organisations. 04/09/2019
At a time when constitutional precedents are being torn up and public figures seem to be vying with each other to plumb new depths of duplicity, there has been something almost reassuring about the reappearance of the well–worn debate over the Church getting involved in public affairs. The latest outrage was the Archbishop of Canterbury considering chairing a Citizens Assembly on possible resolutions to the Brexit crisis. In what feels like a dance as old as time, no sooner had the first stories appeared than they were met by the classic howls of derision over the Church poking its nose where it doesn’t belong. Kate Hoey MP led the charge with the classic “Might be better for Justin Welby to be in talks about why fewer people are attending the Church of England…”.
Yet whilst the debate about the church escaping its ‘spiritual’ domain and invading the ‘secular’ world might continue to rear its head on a regular basis, at the local level a remarkable thing is happening. Not only are churches increasingly engaging in their communities – running Food Banks, setting up Job Clubs, hosting cafes for the lonely – but they are also increasingly doing so in partnership with secular organisations. In a report published today by Demos, we find that churches of every denomination and in every part of the country are embedded in a rich variety of partnerships, with local authorities, businesses, charities and other faith groups, all with the aim of making their communities better places to live.
These partnerships are important to reflect on for a number of reasons. Firstly they should kill off once and for all any lingering discussion of churches as an alternative social safety net to the state. Yes churches did once run hospitals, schools and other social services largely independently. But today they are much more likely to be interdependent with a range of different organisations and services. David Cameron’s famous ‘Big Society’ idea may have had some strengths, but its key weakness was setting ‘society’ against ‘the state’, rather than recognising the fundamental mutuality between the two. As one of our interviewees put it, “churches and faith groups want to be one of the spokes in the wheel of the local community”. But in an age of austerity, rather than replacing the activity of the State, they have instead been forced to watch as “slowly all the other spokes in the wheel are coming off”.
The other misconception that church–secular partnerships can help to reveal relates to the much misunderstood concept of ‘proselytism’. Too many organisations still hide behind this word to avoid working with churches and other faith groups, despite vanishingly little evidence of vulnerable people being coerced or offered support conditional on their religious identity or observance. Local authorities, businesses and others should operate with a presumption of good faith on the part of church partners, with a willingness to believe that they have a genuine commitment to the common good. Such a presumption, however, does not mean that churches should be expected to purge all trace of spirituality from their public service. Faith groups are not simply ‘pools’ of social capital that can be directed at social ills. They have fundamental beliefs about the way the world is and the way it should be, and in appropriate ways they should be free to share these beliefs which motivate their service. Hearteningly, our research found a growing number of secular organisations willing to have more mature conversations with churches on these issues, with one Children’s Centre noting it as a positive outcome of partnership that more local people were attending church and therefore embedded in a supportive community on a long–term basis.
Finally, a focus on church–secular partnerships can shine a light on the important phenomenon of what we call ‘broker organisations’. Exemplified by the Trussell Trust, these groups can not only help churches run social action projects, but can at the same time mediate between them and potential secular partners such as business, government and charitable funders. When Asda recently announced a £20m partnership with the Trussell Trust, their spokesperson explained that “given the size of the problem and our locally–led approach to community activity, we needed partners who could work at scale, but who could also have a tangible local impact.” For a supermarket such as Asda to invest directly in churches in this way is inconceivable, but due to the infrastructure provided by the Trussell Trust, church–run food banks up and down the country will have access to new resource to make sure they are tackling the root causes of food poverty. This ability to harness the local, relational capital of churches at scale can not only unlock new funding streams, but can also enable a more powerful voice in policy debates, as shown by the Trussell Trust’s continued engagement around Universal Credit.
With 80% of church partnerships currently unmediated, it seems there is great potential for the kind of impact that the Trussell Trust has had on food poverty to be extended to other critical social issues, with loneliness, mental health and family support surely all high on the agenda. Investing in new or expanded broker organisations can ensure that churches are able to play their full role in engaging in the life of the nation. At a time like this of such profound dislocation and disruption, this ability to apply the compassion and care of the UK’s churches to our many and worsening social ills is surely no small prize.
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