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Thirty years as the Church’s conscience

08 December 2017

Pat Ashworth looks back over how the Church Urban Fund has changed, 30 years after it was launched with an explosive report


Engagement: Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, visits a CUF-supported project, Ace of Clubs, in Clapham, south London, in 2013

Engagement: Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, visits a CUF-supported project, Ace of Clubs, in Clapham, south London, in 2013

THE Church Urban Fund was born out of the landmark report Faith in the City, commissioned by Archbishop Robert Runcie in the wake of civil unrest, and released in 1985 to intense sniping and accusations of Marxism from Margaret Thatcher’s government.

The report was an incisive and uncompromising examination of life and religion in the 1980s for those who lived in inner cities and outer estates — “places where life is most tenuous and difficult”. It introduced the Church and much of comfortable Britain to urban priority areas (UPAs), a catch-all term for the places, largely ignored by the government and the church hierarchy, where residents experienced both the squalor of physical decay and social disintegration, but also a pervading sense of powerlessness and despair.

A lack of “decent jobs and decent homes” was deemed to lie at the heart of the problem. The UPAs sat at the centre of an unequal society, “their poverty obscured by the busy shopping precincts of mass consumption, their bare subsistence of dole and Supplementary Benefits existing alongside material opulence.”

There was collective responsibility for this unequal society, declared the report, which for many defined the identity of the Church of England. The C of E did not shirk from self-censure, acknowledging itself to be “a bearer of rural nostalgia” that had “failed historically to reach or to keep urban working classes”.

It could not supplant the market or the state, the report made clear, but “it can, as we recommend, mobilise its own resources in a way that awards high priority to the poor. It must by its example and its exertion proclaim the ethic of altruism against egotism, of community against self-seeking, and of charity against greed.” And “those of us who have must be prepared for policies which require sacrifices for those who have not.”


THE report made 23 recommendations to government and nation, and 38 recommendations to the C of E, which, as the conscience of the nation, should “continue to question the morality of economic policies in light of their effects”. Key among them was the establishment of a fund “to strengthen the Church’s presence and promote the Christian witness in the Urban Priority Areas”.

The report had identified a clear problem with the three-year government funding given to UPAs, which were liable to suffer uncertainty and loss of grant just when they were on the point of getting established. Project funding from the Church Urban Fund (CUF) was recommended to last for five years, and the Fund was envisaged as a permanent scheme, subject to periodic review.

CUFSupport: the House of Bishops affirm the work of CUF in 2000

Annual contributions to the Fund should total £2 million — “a realistic aim even though it does not match up to the scale of the problem” — of which at least £1 million should come from the Church Commissioners. The balance should be found from the establishment of a £10-million fund, raised from a one-off national appeal, which would provide interest of about £1 million year for grant-making purposes.

The £10 million was later raised to £20 million, and CUF was launched in 1987. It was seized on as something arising from the report that could be seen to be done: a strategic response along with the many fruitful partnerships between churches that sprang from the audits of church life that local churches were encouraged to make.

Faith in the City had both reflected the experience of, and inspired and motivated, a generation of priests working in the inner cities and on the outer estates: those such as the Revd John Walker, who led a fierce campaign to see jobs brought to the site of the demolished John Player cigarette factory in Nottingham, at the heart of his Radford parish.

CUF grants funded countless capital schemes that regenerated or improved church buildings to give them wider use in their communities, and it resourced projects enabling churches to engage with the disadvantaged groups on their doorstep. “We’ve put more toilets into urban churches than any other organisation, that’s for sure,” says Canon Paul Hackwood, chair of CUF since 2015. His first encounter with the Fund was as a parish priest in Horton, Bradford, in the late 1980s, when his church received a £50,000 grant towards a new building.

The social-action model that characterised CUF is a noble heritage, he reflects. Among the first projects given a grant was one designed to reach “isolated and depressed women” on the Cathall Road Estate in London, and the appointment of a race-relations officer for the Churches Anti Racist Enterprise in the diocese of Liverpool.


OVER the following 20 years, CUF continued to fund small projects in the most deprived areas. Then came 2006, a milestone year for the organisation. The Archbishops had launched a three-year campaign, Challenging Poverty, in the wake of a C of E report, Faithful Cities, highlighting lack of progress in reducing the poverty gap (News, 26 May 2006). The comments of Fran Beckett, CUF’s chief executive and chair of the Home Office advisory group on the community and voluntary sector, were widely reported.

“We live in the fifth-richest country in the world, and yet 20 per cent of people live below the poverty line, with 3.4 million of them being children,” she said. “It is staggering that this level of poverty still exists in the 21st century, and it is a scandal that so many people believe impoverishment is invisible when it is happening right on our doorstep.” CUF was seen by some to have outlived its usefulness, but the General Synod resolved, in 2006, that it should continue. Urban matters were high profile, and the C of E had appointed its first Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe. Fran Beckett sought to move CUF on from being a simple grant-making organisation to one that campaigned at a local level on behalf of faith groups, and attracted additional funds and resources.

CUFRecognition: HM the Queen becomes CUF patron in 1998

Times, though, were hard and getting harder. Recession hit Britain in 2008, and, in 2010, CUF found itself having to raise funds wherever it could, trying to expand its donor base and suspending its Main Grant for a year while reserves were built up. It continued to fund, through its Mustard Seed grants, pilot projects and new initiatives designed to develop into something bigger at a later date. It had a strong and influential voice as Government funding cuts of £81 billion over four years began to take their toll on faith-based projects.

Its own report, At the Cutting Edge: A survey of the impact of the spending cuts, suggested that nearly half such projects — many of them around homelessness, marginalisation, and vulnerability — were already experiencing a notable reduction in their income (News, 30 March 2011). In 2013, the Archbishop of Canterbury called on the Church to step into the void to “do the things the state had run out of the capacity to do” in the financial climate. It could be facing its “greatest opportunity since the Second World War” to reach into communities, he said. CUF was funding churches involved with homelessness, addiction, debt and stress counselling, foodbanks, drop-in centres, youth projects, and many others.


THE world in 2017 is a much more complex place than 30 years ago, Canon Hackwood observes. “We’ve claimed the inheritance and capability of the old organisation, but that social-action model isn’t really the model we want to be working with now,” he says. “CUF had a difficult period once it went from being a grant-making to being a developmental organisation, but we have turned a corner and changed the way we work to better respond to the challenges of our own times.

Faith in the City was oriented around the change from a manufacturing to a service economy, and the idea was that CUF would help with that transition. What’s happened is that we’ve now got a society where 30 per cent of the people do well and 70 per cent of the people do badly — and so the workload is now much larger around that transition than it was in the 1980s. The model of welfare is no longer what we have. But the issues and content are still much the same. One of the key themes of Faith in the City was working with people and building their capacity to do things for themselves, which has always been the CUF way.”

CUF’s work today falls into three closely inter-related areas. Its Together Network employs a worker in the dioceses to support churches working with people in need. It is typified by the work pioneered in 2002 by St Andrew’s, in Larkhill, Liverpool, which looked for ways to support local people who were struggling because of debt or the difficulties and consequences of living on benefits.

The initiative drew in other churches and organisations over the years and what is now the St Andrew’s Community Network is the organising body for the North Liverpool Foodbank, as well as offering debt, stress counselling and the rest. Mark, a drugs and alcohol abuser who has been helped by the network and is now a volunteer, told CUF he was now able to “walk free from addictions and live a normal life… God’s good, isn’t he?”

The Joel Community (News, 25 November 2016) also started life in a church, St Peter’s, Kingston upon Thames, where the relocation of a local drugs and alcohol project had resulted in 40 rough sleepers in the churchyard. The church opened its doors one day a week initially to provide food and support, an initiative which resulted in a permanent night shelter on the church site for a community of homeless people. Homelessness and destitution are two of society’s biggest ills, affecting “the ones Jesus described as outside the system,” Canon Hackwood says.

CUFEngagement: the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, visits a CUF-supported project, Handcrafted, in Durham, with CUF chief executive, Canon Paul Hackwood, in 2013

“Asylum seekers without the right to remain, new migrants, people who are financially excluded, women . . . these are the most vulnerable now in society,” he suggests. “We’re doing a lot of work with Yemeni women at the moment, and with others vulnerable in mainstream society, like young Muslim men and white working-class British men and boys.”

All these are part of the Near Neighbours programme (News, 5 November 2010), which CUF operates with the Government and which is chaired by the Conservative peer, Baroness Eaton. It works in the area of social cohesion, building relationships of trust between people of different faiths and ethnicities. “In the beginning, we had to overcome the high degree of suspicion that the Church is quick to discriminate,” he remembers. “We had to work quite hard to get across that actually, we’re very good at what we do: we own the space very quickly once we get into the conversation and we deliver things.”

CUF also oversees the Just Finance Foundation (News, 16 September 2016), Archbishop Welby’s campaign to address the distress caused by debt and poor financial management. It supports credit unions and others via its Church Credit Champions Network and encourages saving in schools through its Lifesavers project. CUF has identified the reality of eight million people in the UK in financial distress, and its structure and reputation as an organisation has enabled it to raise serious money for the Foundation. Virgin Money, for example, has donated £800,000.


TODAY, funding is stable: CUF receives an annual sum of £200,000 from the Archbishops’ Council; one million comes in from local churches and donations, and five million from programme activity supported through charities, local government, and the banks. But it’s the church money that gives the organisation its value and flavour, Canon Hackwood suggests, and with a donor base predominantly from the 1980s, that is a concern.

“The challenge for CUF is that clergy in particular see it as a thing of the past, very much a legacy organisation,” he acknowledges. “We do find it very difficult sometimes to get beyond this notion. They think we’re not really relevant any more as the Church has moved on to more internal issues of church growth, for instance. I don’t think any of that is true. We are right at the heart of what’s going on in communities, right at the centre of debates about policing, gangs, sexual violence against women.

“We are delivering more than we have ever done in local communities. We are getting local churches to face outward and engage in local activity around growth and discipleships. We are trying to build a political space for the Church to function in. I think all those things are very relevant to now. I think our time is coming again. The future looks a good one for us.”

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