The Faith in the Community report launched by Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance UK shows the great value of churches and other faith groups to local communities across Great Britain.
Following a survey of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales the report illustrates the range of activities provided by faith groups – from dog training, astronomy classes and anger management to running libraries and post offices. And churches run food banks, debt advice centres and Street Pastors in most towns and cities. The report finds that faith groups make our neighbourhoods better places.
The Clearing the Ground report last year showed a failure of public institutions to do enough to understand faith and belief. Local authorities are the public bodies churches are most likely to come into contact with, and stories circulate of bad relationships and funding refusals. Therefore a survey was sent to every local authority in Great Britain, and over a third responded providing a wealth of information about this vital relationship.
Many councils praised the incredible, tireless, work done by faith groups. They commented on the ability to reach the furthest corners of some of the nations' most deprived communities. The ability of churches and other faith groups to mobilise volunteers in a way that other parts of society might not was also noted, as was the valuable physical presence of buildings for wider community use. And their faith matters too. Several responses specifically noted the way beliefs motivated action and made churches, and synagogues, mosques and temples, obvious partners in their work.
But there were barriers too - things that got in the way of making this relationship all that it could be, and limited the prospects of together serving their communities for the good of all. Often council cutbacks had affected capacity to engage with faith groups, and sometimes the faith groups themselves were over stretched – or in a couple of cases too focused on internal church matters. For those faith groups providing statutory services there are essential legal requirements but often bureaucracy was a major hurdle. Some structures were incomprehensible and would provide a significant disincentive for faith groups eager to partner with their local authority.
The biggest barrier for local authorities is fears and perceptions about what faith groups might do. Local authorities expressed concerns that services might be offered exclusively to people of their faith, they thought faith groups might be against equality and they thought they might evangelise. But, as North Yorkshire County Council commented: “Generally, all of these perceptions are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other – but they do create barriers.”
The report makes recommendations to local authorities so they can make the most of working with faith groups and it sees a need for clearer processes, better guidance, shared good practice and a overriding commitment to work with faith groups.
The Evangelical Alliance will also be continuing this work to help churches relate with their local authorities. Working with the Department of Communities and Local Government we will bring together church leaders and senior local government officials to work through the findings of the report, and out of this we will produce a resource to equip and encourage churches. There are incredible opportunities for churches to contribute to the well-being of their communities, serve their neighbourhoods and work out the good news of the gospel for those around them.