POLICYMAKERS need to make better use of the UK’s 45,000 churches and their resources, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19, a report from the think tank Theos argues.
The report, The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting communities and serving people, which was due to be released on Thursday, states that the Government must not see churches “as a lever to be pulled in an emergency, or, at worst, as a problem to be solved”. Instead, it recommends that the Government see churches as partners in creating social cohesion, especially in the wake of funding cuts to groups that were designed to serve local communities.
The report, written by the head of research, Dr Madeleine Pennington, was based on case studies of local cohesion initiatives, combined with interviews with 361 people in 14 local authorities in England between November 2018 and September 2019. More than half of those who responded were not from a church community. They included police, health-care professionals, council officers, and elected representatives. The other 42 per cent of respondents were from church groups.
The research highlights community leaders’ concerns about cuts to local services, and the loss of places where people can have shared experiences. These include the closure of more than 600 youth centres and clubs in Britain over the past six years, and a reduction in public libraries provision by 27 per cent since 2005. In 2018, there were 26 per cent fewer pubs than in 2001.
It states that there are six assets that churches can use to help build community cohesion. These are: providing buildings to hold community events; having networks that can bring people together, especially in times of crisis; providing leadership and encouraging others to lead; convening meetings among those with power; providing and helping volunteers; and providing communities with a Christian vision centred on the idea of “Love thy neighbour.”
The report recommends that policy-makers work with churches wherever possible rather than only during a crisis; promote bonding opportunities with churches; and make an effort to understand the specific contexts in which churches work.
It further recommends that churches tailor their engagement with communities to their needs, ensure that their assets are being used fully to promote social cohesion, and ensure that, when providing services for the whole community, they factor in the need for diversity and inclusion.
The director of Theos, Elizabeth Oldfield, said that the research showed that churches were “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 often fall into, but faithfully, over the long term.”
Read comment on social cohesion from Hugh Osgood