The Common Good
November-December 2001

Empty Pews, Full Agendas

by Martin Wroe | November-December 2001

While Britain's church attendance plummets, the remaining core is engaged in a nationwide tapestry of social altruism. And now the government's getting involved.

The city of Hull, on the east coast of England, has an unlikely claim to fame. According to Richard Bentley, pastor of Bodmin Road Evangelical Church in the district of Bransholme, Hull has the worst church attendance in the United Kingdom. Still, such is the freefall in British church membership in recent decades, by the time you read this, another city will have staked its claim.

Which is not to say Rev. Bentley has a lot of free time on his hands. Most of the week he is ministering to the 26,000 occupants of Britain's largest housing estate, where he and his colleagues run a plethora of social and community activities, from mothers and toddlers groups and after-school homework clubs to a refuge for Bosnian Muslims and literacy programs with Nottingham University.

Were proof needed of Archbishop William Temple's dictum that the church is "the only voluntary organization that exists solely for the benefit of nonmembers," then here it is in Bransholme.

"The services we provide to the community are used almost exclusively by people who do not come to our church," explains the minister. "We don't Bible-bash; we work where we think there is a need to be met."

And, unlike many other professionals working with some of the country's most deprived communities, the members of Bodmin Road Evangelical Church also live next door to them. "We live on the same housing estate. The teachers don't, the social workers don't, and the policy makers certainly don't," he says. "And because we live here, we know what the problems are."

Rev. Bentley is not alone. If the formal membership of the myriad British denominations is in decline, growing numbers of the remaining core are engaged in a nationwide tapestry of social altruism-from nurseries to youth clubs, hostels for the homeless to neighborhood renewal schemes and crime prevention. One estimate has the combined efforts of the churches energizing 130,000 different community projects.

And after years of disinterest-with just a touch of cynicism at the political influence of right-leaning Christian groups in the United States-British politicians are suddenly tripping each other up in the race to embrace faith-based communities.

"We welcome the contribution of churches and other faith-based organizations as partners of local and central government in community renewal," announced the Labour manifesto at the recent general election. Not to be outdone, William Hague's Conservatives promised to "end discrimination against faith-based community groups."

At a Faith in Politics conference organized by the Christian Socialist Movement, Prime Minister Tony Blair put his personal stamp on party policy. "Your role in the voluntary sector is legitimate and important," he told Christian social activists from across the country. "And where you have the desire and ability to play a greater role, with the support of your communities, we want to see you do so."

Significantly, he added, "We want you as partners, not substitutes," an attempt to allay fears that increasing the role of the voluntary sector in social provision is a cynical ruse to allow the state to retreat from traditional welfare obligations.

And if Blair is well-known as a devout high Anglican, he is not alone in government in seeking new partnerships with the faith communities. The day after hosting a meeting with Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University's volunteering guru, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown also sought out the churches-later announcing he would make it easier for them to access statutory funding for community services. His 450 million pounds (about $630 million U.S.) "Sure Start" program, launching in 250 areas next year, will provide drop-in centers, childcare, and mobile health clinics for young children. While leaning on existing local authority providers, it will also seek out voluntary groups. Brown made it clear who he is thinking of: "It will be available to all groups who meet the criteria, including faith-based groups-mosques, synagogues, and churches-who every day can make such an important contribution to their local communities."

ACROSS THE BOARD it is dawning on UK politicians that the massive needs of social regeneration require more than capital and investment, more than buildings and programs. Without winning people to the task it will fail-and that means local people, and most of all, people who will give their time without billing for it.

"Once you accept that involving the community is crucial to success, you have to ask how that is done," says Barry Hugil, editor of the social trends magazine Regeneration, "which is where the churches and other faith groups are coming in."

Hugil says that around 9 percent of the UK population is involved in voluntary work, but that among active Christians the figure rises to more than 30 percent. The figure is paralleled in other faith groups, notably in areas of high ethnic populations where community activity is associated with mosque and temple. "Put another way," says Hugil, "without faith groups, voluntary work in most of Britain would collapse."

Listen to the new British Home Secretary David Blunkett, third most powerful figure in the government after Blair and Brown, and you realize how clearly the reigning political classes have seen the light. "Faith leaders themselves," explains Blunkett, "are the development workers in every community. This is a resource available to all areas of our country, even the most deprived, the least active, and the most likely to be disengaged from the political process. This is a resource that every government regeneration program and the development of community leadership cannot match."

As education secretary in Blair's first government from 1997 to 2001, Blunkett identified a huge popular demand for church schools-and that they delivered surprisingly good results with the same kind of social intake as comparative non-faith-based schools. As well as ushering in provision for a new wave of Church of England schools, he also introduced the first Muslim schools.

Now the established church wants to expand its provision in areas of economic and social hardship, reaching out to those, according to Lord Dearing, author of a new report, "Who Have Least in Life." Dearing wrote, "It was the call to serve the poor that took the church so magnificently into education in the 19th century. Today the church is still committed to serving those in the most deprived areas of society."

This is music to the government's ears, which is now working to make it less financially onerous for faith groups to manage schools. No sooner was Blunkett promoted to Home Secretary after Labour's reelection than he set to work on expanding partnership with faith groups to renew civic society.

"Why is active citizenship and community development so important?" asks this former Methodist lay preacher and one-time leftist firebrand. "Because the very order and stability of our society depends on it. We are talking about the maintenance of our democracy and the ability of men and women to bring about change peacefully and without division and damage to others in the process. From the fight against racism, xenophobia, and division through to global poverty and environmental sustainability, we see the role of faith communities working for progress and decency."

In an increasingly privatized, leisure-oriented society, where even a government with the best of intentions finds it difficult to close the gap between rich and poor, there is growing recognition that faith communities provide a pool of active citizenry that has not given up on the political process. But the government's overtures are not without critics. Former Labour deputy leader Lord Hattersley predicts "evangelizing" of this kind is dangerous and will alienate sections of society. Distinguished academics such as atheist scientist Richard Dawkins denounce backing for church schools as "lethally divisive," while Labour local government leaders fear damaging the "delicate cultural balance" of the inner cities.

Some who don't doubt Blair's faith do doubt his sincerity in working with religious groups-some think the religious theme in his political program renders both too vapid. "As leader of an overwhelmingly secular political party that prides itself on its social tolerance, Mr. Blair is obliged to define his religious values in such a broad, ecumenical way that they are almost drained of meaning," wrote one influential commentator.

The Labour-supporting Guardian newspaper fears the religious agenda will be limited to pro-life, bioethical issues, and family questions, on which the position of the Christian churches is often "deeply conservative."

And, ironically, many faith groups themselves claim they are being at best ignored, at worst victimized, in the fight for funding. A survey of 3,000 churches found that one in five feel their projects have been excluded from government funding because of their faith basis. Leading bishops, backed by Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, are lobbying government to ensure churches are actively supported in their regeneration work rather than treated with "suspicion or even outright discrimination."

The Local Government Association says it does not discriminate but points out that faith groups may miss out on grants because some schemes only give money to groups that don't exclude people on any basis. It remains the case that some of the best community-based projects, even in leading denominations, find it hard to design equal opportunity recruitment policies that square with their own doctrinal stance on questions such as gay and lesbian rights. Others find the "proselytizing" instinct difficult to keep in check, which will inevitably limit success with public funding applications.

Strangely, just as the policy makers are embracing the previously under-appreciated social work of the church, some are warning of a risk to its distinctive voice. "Religious projects will be nationalized, losing their independence and freedom," warned the Sunday Times newspaper.

For the moment, says David Haslam, Methodist minister and chair of the Christian Socialist Movement, Blair's Labour government can be trusted-as long as it continues to emphasize partnership. But he urges faith leaders to monitor developments and ensure that government does not quietly retreat from expensive welfare obligations in the hope no one notices.

"There is an always a risk that the church is being co-opted," he says. "And then its more prophetic voice might be muted or silenced because it doesn't want to bite the hand that feeds."

Martin Wroe is a free-lance writer based in London.

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