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Millions on the brink of disaster  

26 August 2022

Churches must respond urgently to the cost-of-living emergency, argues Niall Cooper


HOW should churches respond to the cost-of-living emergency? The way in which we answer this question will test and illustrate our faith.

All around us, warning lights are flashing. There is an economic emergency, and all the signs are that it will worsen severely this autumn and winter if nothing is done. In the 40 years since Church Action on Poverty was founded, in 1982, there have been many times of economic hardship, but none to match the scale or urgency of the crisis currently facing millions of people.

There will be no greater priority for the incoming Prime Minister, who must act urgently, with decisiveness and compassion.

Church Action on Poverty recently joined 55 other organisations in calling for an emergency budget and immediate action targeted on those who are already struggling the most. On top of the imminent and huge rise in fuel bills, overall living costs for low-income households are predicted to rise by 14 per cent, but benefits have risen by only three per cent. The Government’s interventions to date fall well short of what is needed. Many families are facing shortfalls in excess of £1600. People already struggling are now on the brink of disaster.

SO, WHAT should the churches do? Supporting well-informed campaigns and pressing for urgent government action is essential, but churches have a part to play beyond that. What is required is a bold, transformative, and long-term commitment to working with and alongside people and communities who bear the brunt of this crisis.

Churches must reposition themselves at the heart of neighbourhoods, invest in local leadership, and work with partners to build a social movement that enables people and communities together to reclaim dignity, agency, and power. This demands, in the words of Pope Francis, “a poor Church, for the poor”.

What does that look like in practice?

First, churches should not assume that “we know what is best,” and should resist the temptation to do things for people in poverty. They should, instead, recognise that people with experience of poverty can be leaders, pioneers, and innovators in their own right. Over the years, Church Action on Poverty has witnessed and supported many examples of transformational change which have come as a result of taking a lead from people who are themselves struggling against poverty.

We saw that at the first National Poverty Hearing organised by Church Action on Poverty in Church House, Westminster, in 1996. We see it today in the growing movement of Poverty Truth Commissions, which bring together people with direct experience of poverty and people in senior leadership locally, whose position means that they can effect change.

Over 12 to 18 months, participants engage in deep listening and forming relationships. Having done this, they then develop practical actions together, based on the insights of people with first-hand experience of what needs to change — and frequently the best ideas for making it happen. Churches should embrace and join this approach, wherever possible.

The rapidly growing Your Local Pantry network is another example of the transformative change that comes from working with people and communities to develop solutions together (Features, 20 March 2020, News, 12 February 2021).

More than 75 churches and other community partners have opened Local Pantries across the UK to date. Pantry membership is a lifeline for more than 90,000 people in member households, who are able to save up to £780 a year on their weekly budgets, gaining access to good-quality food, and finding dignity, choice, and hope in the process. Church Action on Poverty is looking for partnerships with churches and others to open a further 45 Local Pantries to support families struggling to make ends meet over the coming months.

SECOND, becoming a “poor Church, for the poor” means that Churches as institutions must truly invest in local leadership and communities. Churches cannot call out the Government for failing to adequately tackle the cost-of-living crisis unless they themselves make long-term investment in low-income communities. The Church of England’s Lowest Income Communities Fund is welcome, but there must be much greater transparency and accountability to communities about how this money is being spent.

Third, to be true to the Fourth Mark of Mission — to transform the unjust structures of society — the Churches must become even bolder in speaking truth to power. In this, they must resist the temptation to speak on behalf of people, and instead commit themselves to enabling people who are struggling against poverty to speak for themselves. The Churches’ task is to create space for people and communities struggling in the cost-of-living crisis to speak their own truths to power — and to join our voices to theirs.

How the Church as a whole responds to the cost-of-living emergency is a litmus test of its belief in the gospel as good news for people and communities. We cannot be found wanting.

Niall Cooper is director of Church Action on Poverty.

Visit the website of Your Local Pantry here

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