In the last dozen years, as government cuts have taken hold, churches have stepped in to provide help to some of the most needy in the country. This has been a widespread, nationally significant movement, and politicians are beginning to notice. If this work continues and develop, it could transform our national life and our politics.
This was the summary of a message we heard from Sir Stephen Timms MP, who spoke at our Christmas Men’s Breakfast in my local church, St Martin’s in Cambridge in December 2023.
Hope made visible
He described a colleague of his (now a life peer on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords), who had become chairman of the Refugee Council.
Her job entailed visiting projects supporting refugees all over the country. The most remarkable ones, often involving sacrificial service by the volunteers, were run by churches.
‘To her complete surprise, she found lives characterized by the fruitfulness that Paul writes about in his epistle to the Galatians.
‘[Maeve Sherlock] decided to find out more about this; she attended church in Islington, then an Alpha course. In 2010 she became a member of the House of Lords; in 2018 was ordained a deacon and from last year became non-stipendiary minister in St Nicholas’ church in central Durham, as well as being on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords.’
Sir Stephen went on:
‘What I want to argue this morning is with things in the country in such a depressing state, and with so many things apparently not working as they should do, more and more people are looking to the churches, and are finding something different there, something better, something more hopeful … we need that fruitfulness to transform our politics.’
Supercharged by the pandemic
He described when he was leader of Newham council, more than twenty five years ago, that they were always polite to churches, but they never worked with them as partners.
The pandemic revealed a different picture than the common picture of church decline. He described getting two emails from constituents saying they had no food; and another email from the current elected mayor of Newham saying that a certain vicar, if contacted before 10am, would get a food parcel delivered before 6pm that day. Stephen tried this at the beginning of the lockdown, Good Friday 2020, and it worked. Many people, with no prior connection to the churches, became dependent on the churches for the basics for living.
The all-party group on faith and society commissioned a report, available on their website, published in Nov 2020, about faith groups and local councils in the pandemic, revealing that all over the country, faith groups were the ones providing help.
This was a surprise. The default for council officers was that working with faith groups was too difficult and complicated; either faith groups would spend any money given on converting people, or they’d favour their own adherents. ‘But come the pandemic lockdown, there wasn’t anybody else …
‘Faith groups uniquely had the premises, the volunteers, and the motivation, and the connection with people needing help that no-one else had.
‘Far from [churches] being “on the way out,” it turned out, in this decade, when the crunch came, communities became completely dependent on their churches.’
All the Trussel Trust foodbacks are based in churches. Churches were unique in their capacity to help. They exemplified the ‘big society’.
Christians against poverty
Another high-impact Christian initiative is ‘Christians against poverty‘, founded in Bradford. They support people in debt and train church members as debt counsellors. Sir Stephen also mentioned churches providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming refugees, and facilitating street pastors.
MPs are noticing these developments. Nowadays the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, once desultory, now packs Westminster Hall.
Quoting a historian:
Between 1780 and 1850, the English ceased to be one of the world’s most agressive, rowdy, outspoken, cruel and bloodthirsty nations and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly and goodly-minded …
‘I think that transformation was a really really positive transformation which all of us are continuing to benefit from to this day and how huge were the benefits of that fruitfulness which exploded all over the country, including the transformation of our politics.
‘And I think that the state we are in now requires another awakening on a similar scale and on the same lines. And I am one of those who thinks it could happen and who hopes that it will.’
Not many of the recipients of those services are coming to faith. But people are coming to faith but in a different way. Theos [the thinktank] found that others in the community, seeing what the churches are doing, offer to help out.. and they are the ones who end up coming to faith.
‘Churches are doing the heavy lifting to support their communities in very very difficult times.’
Sir Stephen’s talk is available here.