LONELINESS and mental illness are by far the most common community issues being addressed by parish priests in the Church of England, a new survey suggests.
The survey of 1094 incumbents of benefices around the C of E was conducted by the Mission and Public Affairs Council and the Church Urban Fund to inform the latest Church in Action report, published on Sunday. The previous two reports (published in 2013 and 2015) were based on surveys conducted in 2011.
More than three quarters (76 per cent) of all respondents reported that loneliness was a “significant” problem in their community last year: 18 per cent higher than in 2011. Concern over mental well-being increased to 60 per cent from 40 per cent in 2011.
Homelessness in the community was also a growing concern. It was considered a significant issue for 23 per cent of all respondents, compared with 14 per cent in 2011.
These concerns generally increased in more deprived parishes, where low income, poor education, unemployment, and family breakdown were also considered significant community issues (94 per cent; 90 per cent; 81 per cent; and 88 per cent, respectively).
Almost all incumbents indicated that their churches were actively involved in helping people who were struggling with loneliness (94 per cent); family breakdown (86 per cent); and mental-health issues (83 per cent), in partnership with charities and other support groups.
This was reflective of an overall increase in churches’ working with both Government and non-government organisations to provide community support, the report indicates, including the local council, schools, police, and businesses.
Churches in the most deprived areas generally offered more support and activities — such as night shelters, debt advice, parent-and-toddler groups, community cafés, lunch clubs for the elderly, and youth groups — than churches in less deprived areas.
One in five benefices (19 per cent) ran a foodbank, and more than 90 per cent supported foodbanks in some way, including providing a venue, volunteers, and donations. Almost all incumbents agreed that this kind of work helped to increase mission (95 per cent) and evangelism (78 per cent) by bringing people into church.
The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, said that the findings offered an “encouraging insight” into the practices of churches, but that more could be done to bring this “into closer alignment with our beliefs and intentions when it comes to social justice”.
Almost all respondents (97 per cent) agreed that “engaging with the poor and marginalised is a vital activity for a healthy church” — but only 54 per cent agreed that “tackling poverty is a fundamental part of the mission for our church”.
Similarly, two-thirds of incumbents said that their church did not regularly plan creative ways to support community campaigns, despite 88 per cent agreeing that “campaigning for social justice” was an important job of churches in the community.
Social engagement was highest in deprived or urban parishes. Half of the churches in London, for example, frequently or occasionally held five or more campaigning activities — such as lobbying MPs, going on marches or protests, and advocacy on behalf of those in poverty — compared with a quarter of churches nationally.
The executive director of the Church Urban Fund, Canon Paul Hackwood, said: “There is room for growth — in compassion, in faith, in action, and in numbers — but this report portrays an active Church committed to people and communities, giving us plenty of reason for hope, and inspiration for further action.”
There are 6831 benefices in the C of E. The sample (16 per cent of this) was spread across rural and urban parishes (41 and 59 per cent) to reflect the overall balance across the C of E (45 and 55 per cent). Church size, regions, and levels of deprivation in the sample were also largely reflective of all C of E benefices.