British councils and policymakers are being urged to make better use of the UK’s 45,000 churches and their vast resources to help bring communities together in a post–Covid–19 world, where loneliness and inequality look set to rise. The new national report, which has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and MP Danny Kruger, is especially timely following news that many councils are at risk of collapsing and resources are more stretched than ever.
The report, to be launched on Thursday (26/11) by Theos and the Free Churches Group entitled “The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People”, will call on government leaders to stop seeing churches as a “danger to social cohesion”, which are only turned to in times of crisis, but instead should recognise that they play a key role in bringing together people from different backgrounds. At a time when there are more church buildings than pubs, and community groups continue to face the brunt of council cuts, the role of the churches is more important than ever.
The report, which interviewed almost 400 people across 14 English local authorities, will claim policymakers have regarded churches as a “risk factor for division” for too long, neglecting to consider the role of churches in their communities on an everyday level. More than half of those interviewed for the report were from outside the church community, including council officers, police and healthcare professionals, elected representatives, and other faith leaders. The remaining 42% of people interviewed were from church communities up and down the country.
The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Too often in studies of community cohesion the place of religion is treated either as only a problem to be solved or as an irrelevance to be ignored. This excellent report brings home the power and potential for the Church at the heart of our communities and provokes us to think what more we might do together in the future.”
In frank and honest interviews conducted as part of the report, council officers admitted that councils must look for partners to help tackle the issues around social cohesion. One reported: “We can’t do that in a formal way now because we don’t have the resources.”
However, the report does not shy away from the fact that religious belief is at the heart of churches’ motivation to create and build social cohesion amongst communities. It argues these Christian beliefs and values cannot simply be stripped away or ignored, and that the church cannot just plug the funding gap of local authorities and take on this role in a secular fashion.
Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos, said: “Our groundbreaking research shows churches are a gift, not a threat to social cohesion. They are quietly building strong links in communities, not in the short term, crisis driven cycles that state services and charities can end up in, but faithfully over the long term.”
According to the report, there are numerous concerning signs regarding social cohesion in the UK; including the hate crime that has emerged following Brexit, the stories behind Black Lives Matter, the loneliness of an ageing population in a transient world, the rise in inequality and the fact that Britons are less likely to share experiences with neighbours.
Despite this, the report highlights that communities are losing vital space to connect; more than 600 youth centres and clubs closed across Britain over the last six years, public libraries have reduced by 27% since 2005 and the number of pubs has fallen by 26% between 2001 and 2018. In a world where social media is on the rise, people are more likely to be working from home, and there is less communal space; isolation and a loss of shared experience is an increasing concern.
Bolton was praised in the report for how its town churches (through Bolton Christian Community Cohesion) have worked together alongside the council, police and other faiths to promote the Bolton 2030 Vision of the city. The report also applauds the successful “Passport for Faith” scheme in Bolton where schoolchildren met and could ask questions to members of different faiths and collect stamps for their “Interfaith Passport”. It is praised as an example of how working together can “unleash significant positive energy”.
The report demonstrates that the Church has six great assets at its fingertips, which are key for aiding social cohesion in communities:
· Buildings – to hold community events (of which many are secular including mother and toddler groups, food banks, LGBT meet–ups etc).
· Networks – that bring people together from different backgrounds and can be used to send information quickly into communities in times of need.
· Leadership – not just faith leadership at a formal level but also encouraging and nurturing young Christians to lead.
· Convening power – bringing people together offering conversational space.
· Volunteering –providing but also helping co–ordinate volunteers and events in communities.
· Vision – the desire to shape and transform communities is intrinsic to the core values of Christianity with its belief to “love your neighbour as yourself” at the centre of that.
The report will be launched on Thursday, November 26 at an online event being hosted by FaithAction and the All–Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society. Further details on the event, including instructions on how to register, can be found here.
Notes: Between November 2018 and September 2019, Theos conducted 361semi–structured interviews with individuals across fourteen local authorities within England. Of all participants, 42% spoke on behalf of a church community (for example, church leaders, chaplains, and church–based volunteers) and the remainder were local and national stakeholders speaking in a non–church capacity (for example, council officers, police and healthcare professionals, elected representatives, and other faith leaders). Within the church sample, a range of ecclesiastical traditions were represented: just over half of church–based participants represented a “Free”, Nonconformist or Orthodox (as opposed to Catholic or Anglican) ecclesiastical tradition.
The areas visited were: Bolton, Bradford, Bury, Cornwall, Croydon, Derby, East Lindsey, Haringey, Middlesbrough, Newham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Solihull, and Thanet.
[Notes to editors]
1. Theos’ new report The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People will be launched on Thursday November 26 2020. An advanced copy of this report is attached under embargo.
2. For more information, or to arrange an interview please contact the report’s author Dr Madeleine Pennington (Head of Research, Theos) on 07778 160 185 or Lizzie Harvey (Head of Communications, Theos) on 07778 160 052
3. Dr Madeleine Pennington is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar in Philadelphia. She is the author of The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy (Brill: 2019) and is now working on her second book, entitled Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment (OUP, forthcoming). Outside of Theos, she is a member of the Engaging Young Adult Friends steering group, aiming to increase age diversity among British Quakers.
4. Theos is the UK’s leading religion and society think tank. It has a broad Christian basis, and exists to enrich the debate about faith and society.