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20 June 2013

Churches and local authorities working together

Churches and local authorities working together

The Faith in the Community report demonstrates the strength and success of relationships between local authorities and faith groups across Great Britain. However, it also shows the need for more work to be done to ensure the most is made of these relationships and barriers that might limit interaction are overcome.

Launched by Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance last week the report follows a survey of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. It illustrates the range of activities provided by faith groups – from dog training, astronomy classes and anger management to running libraries and post offices. Franchised church based services such as food banks, debt advice centres and Street Pastors were noted in most towns and cities. Many local authorities acknowledge that faith groups make their neighbourhoods better places.

Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, said in his foreword to the report: "Building strong working relationships between local authorities and religious communities should not be based on mere 'tolerance'. It should be about talking, listening, and growing together. Together, working in unity of spirit, we are stronger than when we try to do things in isolation."

Councils commented on the ability of churches to reach the furthest corners of some of the nations' most deprived communities. Their ability as well as that of 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 obvious partners in their work.

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."

Gary Streeter, MP for Devon South West and chair of Christians in Parliament commented in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph: "Faith groups and other community bodies are more important than ever. Especially faith groups, because they are the people who are most visibly committed to working in their communities and serving those around them. They are the people who turn up before funding begins and stay after grants are cut. They are not the state, and they are not to be co-opted by the state, but without them society would be a poorer place."

In the coming months the Evangelical Alliance will continue 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. This autumn consultation events will take place to bring together church leaders and senior members of local authorities to discuss the benefits and barriers and see how partnerships can be strengthened to be more fruitful in the future. Following these events a resource specifically targeted at helping churches develop their engagement with local authorities will be produced.

Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, commented: "Nationally, this government fails to provide much needed guidance to local authorities on how they should develop religious literacy and work more with faith groups. If they are serious about nurturing society, and not just the state and the market, they need to do a lot more to understand the faith groups active at the heart of it."