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Churches forming more secular partnerships, says report

13 September 2019

Austerity years have brought about more church-based social action


Nick Knowles (second from right) and Gabrielle Blackman, of the BBC TV programme DIY SOS, with the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (second from left), and the Archdeacon, the Ven. Mark Ireland, at the former parish rooms of St Silas’s, Blackburn, which are to be transformed into supportive living accommodation for 16- to-18-year-olds. The project is a partnership between the church, led by the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Sheelagh Aston, and Nightsafe, which is supported by Children in Need

Nick Knowles (second from right) and Gabrielle Blackman, of the BBC TV programme DIY SOS, with the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (second...

A DECADE of austerity has driven churches in the UK to form partnerships with non-faith voluntary organisations to address issues including poverty, mental health, and loneliness in communities.

This is the key finding of a new report, Holy Alliances: Church-secular partnerships for social good, which was commissioned by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust and the Good Faith Partnership, and published by Demos last week. It is based on a survey of 120 church leaders, ten in-depth interviews, and 12 case-studies of churches in the UK.

Churches were more likely to form partnerships with non-faith voluntary organisations (23 per cent), local authorities (17 per cent), and schools (17 per cent), than with with health organisations (11 per cent), the police (eight per cent), non-Christian faith groups (seven per cent), and businesses (six per cent), the report states. Most churches (79 per cent) were partners with more than one organisation.

The findings coincide with an overall growth in church-based social action since the financial crash in 2008, boosted by social theology, and highlighted in other research. Church volunteers are estimated to give 114 million hours per year to social action: the equivalent of more than £3 billion in earnings.

Austerity has led to the “withdrawal of State and other actors” from community work, creating a gap filled by church-partnerships, the report states.

The authors write: “Many [respondents] have noted a shift in church attitudes which has made them more receptive to partnership work. This could be described as a theological shift from a more personalised faith to a more community-based faith; from ‘preaching the good news’ and ‘saving souls’ to ‘the social gospel’ and ‘transforming communities’.”

The Senior Researcher at Demos and co–author of Holy Alliances, Sacha Hilhorst, explains: “We wanted to understand what [church-secular partnerships] meant for social action and for churches themselves. As it turns out, it is an overwhelmingly positive experience for the vast majority, with tangible benefits such as unlocking access to funding, better access to the target group, and more opportunities to scale up impact.”

The most common areas addressed by these partnerships were food poverty (19 per cent), and poverty (13 per cent on), closely followed by mental health (11 per cent), and loneliness (ten per cent). Other key topics included homelessness, debt, asylum, and family breakdown. Case studies highlighted in the report included credit unions, foodbanks, and youth groups.

St Augustine’s, Cambridge, formed a partnership with the Residents’ Association and Cambridge Older People’s Enterprise to open a café, three mornings a week, to combat loneliness in the area. The Vicar, the Revd Dr Janet Bunker, says in the report: “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you buy a coffee.”

Churches had “invaluable” local knowledge and roots, thanks to the parish system, she said. “It immediately imbues us with a community ethos. Our mission is to support the entire parish, regardless of faith or background.” The project had been worth the bureaucracy, including setting up a bank account with different signatories and getting local council funding, she said.

The main benefits of church-secular partnerships referred to in the report include increased resources, funding, impact, and administrative support. The report also identifies some difficulties, however, including fears expressed by some secular partners about the religious motivation of church volunteers. This had led to a lack of trust in some partnerships, the report says.

The authors explain: “The most common reason cited for not wanting to partner with churches is the fear of proselytism. . . It is usually related to two specific concerns — firstly, that service provision will be conditional on religious activity or adherence, and, secondly, that activities will be accompanied by coercive forms of faith-sharing. These concerns may not be entirely baseless, but evidence suggests that they are often significantly over-inflated.”

Broker organisations, such as the Trussell Trust, were “crucial” in mediating between churches and secular partners in these cases, one co-author, David Barclay, who is a partner at the Good Faith Partnership, said. “If the Government is serious about tackling issues such as loneliness, then they would be wise to invest in such organisations.”

The report calls on the Government to make funding for social-action projects more accessible to churches. It also warns against “blanket policies” that prevent secular organisations from working with faith groups.

It was welcomed by the Church Urban Fund. The head of research and evaluation, Jessamin Birdsall, said: “In our experience, transparency around motivations, values, and aims is essential to fostering relationships of integrity and effectiveness between faith-based and secular organisations. As this report suggests, we see considerable potential in such partnerships to tap into a broader range of community assets and tackle injustices on a larger scale.”

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