IMAGINE, five years ago, that you were asked: "What would happen
in Britain if hundreds of thousands of people were no longer able
to afford enough food?" If it was me, I think I would have guessed
that local councils would have organised something.
What has actually happened, however, is that the churches have
stepped up to the plate. The Trussell Trust co-ordinates a
fast-growing network, now numbering more than 400, of charitable
foodbanks, all of which are church-based.
Three more open every week. They draw on charitable donations of
food, and on large-scale volunteer effort. Between them, they
provided food for more than half a million households between April
- when the bedroom tax, and other benefit cuts kicked in - and
December last year.
Most people think the churches in Britain are experiencing a
slow but inexorable decline into irrelevance. The truth about
Britain in 2014, however, is rather different. Only the churches
have had the capacity to address a sudden crisis of food
And it is not just foodbanks. Debt advice, street pastors,
helping jobless people into work, tackling homelessness, and
international development: in all these areas - and many others -
the churches are making a remarkable social impact.
We are seeing a new wave of church-based social activism. It is
not just activism undertaken by people with a background in
Christianity. Rather, it has the activity of worship right at its
heart. This is what gives it energy and commitment.
THE number of people on the electoral registers of churches in
the diocese of London fell sharply in the 20 years from 1972. But
in 1992 the trend reversed. In the next 20 years, numbers climbed
steeply - and, by 2012, they were back at 1972 levels, and still
Immigration has been a big factor, and no doubt Alpha courses
have played a part. But that numerical evidence - as well as
reports of what is happening in communities across the country -
suggest that the old assumption of declining social impact needs to
IN THE part of London I represent, London Citizens - a coalition
of churches, mosques, schools, trade unions, and community
organisations - has had a huge impact. It has enlisted young people
to political campaigning far more effectively than the political
parties did. It successfully recruited formerly unemployed people,
many reached through their church or mosque, to work at the London
2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. And it developed the idea of the
living wage - an idea now taken up by politicians in every
Last year, I chaired the advisory committee for a study by the
think tank Demos. Its conclusions were published last September, in
The Faith Collection: Exploring the role of faith in British
society and politics.
Drawing on data from the European Values Survey, it showed that
people who said that they belonged to a religious organisation were
far more likely to volunteer than people who did not.
In fact, the survey found that the one-in-eight of British
respondents who said that they belonged to a religious organisation
accounted for more volunteers with trade unions, in local community
action, on women's issues, and on human rights and development than
the seven-in-eight who did not. And the report points out that the
political implications are far-reaching.
I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society.
We have taken evidence from a wide range of faith-based
organisations. Many of them report reluctance on the part of local
authorities to commission public services from organisations such
as theirs. Inour view, this reluctance is misplaced.
CONSEQUENTLY, we have drawn up a draft "covenant", comprising
commitments to be signed up to by both local authorities and by
faith-based organisations that are seeking local-authority
We hope that it will help to address the current reluctance.
Local authorities recognise that austerity will require radical new
ways of meeting needs in their communities. A few forward-thinking
councils see partnership with faith groups as a promising option.
We are discussing pilots of our covenant with a couple of city
Of course, by some yardsticks, the social impact of the Church
is much less than in the past. Its impact on public policy is
slight - church opposition to the Prime Minister's Marriage
(Same-Sex Couples) Bill appeared to have minimal effect on the
public debate. Many people have no idea what happens inside
churches - and no inclination to find out, either.
But popular respect for the Church, however ill-informed, has
been maintained. In disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where many
institutions have pulled out, the Church is sometimes the only one
left. In those situations, it represents hope.
In previous centuries, waves of church-based social activism
have had profound and lasting effects on Britain. They have
delivered social progress. They have forged new forms of social
organisation, and enduring institutions. It is too early to judge
the long-term effects of this current wave, but the scale of it
suggests that the effect will be substantial.
Stephen Timms is the MP for East Ham, and Shadow Minister