Only half of clergy think poverty fight is important for parishes

Only 54 per cent of clergy agree that tackling poverty is a fundamental part of the mission for the church.

The finding was revealed in research from the latest Church Urban Fund survey that explores the ways in which Anglican churches across England connect with and serve their communities.

Among the survey’s major findings is that 76 per cent of clergy reported that loneliness was a major or significant problem in their community, including 75 per cent of respondents in the least deprived areas.

Mental health problems were the next most widely reported issue, with 60 per cent of respondents identifying these as a major or significant problem in their communities, an increase from 44 per cent in 2014 and 40 per cent in 2011.

Furthermore, among the most deprived parishes, between 74-91 per cent of clergy agreed that 14 issues including poor housing, and low incomes, were among significant problems in the parish.

However, the report also highlights the differences that churches are making in their communities. The survey found that among local churches, 83per cent of churches are involved in supporting people with mental health problems, 86 per cent with family breakdown, and 94 per cent with loneliness.

The social issues that churches are most likely to be responding to through organised activities are loneliness (46 per cent) and food poverty (40 per cent), while a substantial minority are also responding to homelessness (12 per cent), mental health problems (10 per cent), and debt (9 per cent) through organised activities.

Meanwhile, in 40 per cent of parishes, churches are involved in proving informal help to people experiencing domestic violence, and in 38 per cent they are involved in providing informal help to people with drug or alcohol addictions.

More than two-thirds, 69 per cent, of parishes said they offer financial or in-kind donations to foodbanks, while 32 per cent provide volunteers, and 19 per cent run them alone or in partnership. Overall, 93 per cent of churches support food banks in one or more ways.

The survey also highlights what CUF says is another important dimension of church social action, where churches take a stand against, or seek to influence, business and government policies or decisions.

The report explains that theologically, this is the modern equivalent of Amos and other biblical prophets speaking out against injustice: ‘They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed’ (Amos 2:7a).

“It is about addressing the root causes of social issues, rather than responding to their immediate effects. This principle commands widespread support among churches in different contexts, the report states.

Most church leaders (88 per cent) agree that ‘campaigning for social justice is an important part of the role of local churches’, with 43 per cent strongly agree with this statement.

However, as the report points out, only 33 per cent of churches are frequently involved in the types of activity commonly associated with campaigning, with the most widespread activities are participating in local forums, lobbying MPs and local representatives, joining in national campaigns, and advocating on behalf of people in poverty.

Although only 13 per cent of clergy said that they frequently advocate on behalf of people experiencing poverty. And only 4 per cent agreed that they frequently advocate for people experiencing poverty to have their voices heard in local or national debates.

The report points out that 97 per cent of Anglican leaders agree that ‘engaging with the poor and marginalised in the local area is a vital activity for a healthy church’, and the proportion that ‘strongly agree’ with this statement has increased from 45 per cent in 2011 to 61 per cent in 2017.

However, only 54 per cent of clergy agree that ‘we see tackling poverty as a fundamental part of the mission for our church’.

“This is higher than the 44 per cent that agreed with this statement in 2011, but it still means that there is a large minority of churches for whom tackling poverty is not a fundamental part of their church’s mission, even though most of them acknowledge that engaging with the poor is vital to a healthy church,” the report states.

Heather Buckingham, Director of Research and Policy at Church Urban Fund, told CEN that ‘Churches’ action therefore need to be responsive to local contexts’.

“Our efforts to address social issues need to be characterised by recognition of the potential and dignity of each individual, enabling people to discover that they have something valuable to bring to those around them.

“The 2017 Church in Action Report tells us that in areas with higher levels of deprivation, issues such as low incomes, debt and poor housing continue to be problematic,” she added.

Another key finding of the report was clergy responses to inter-ethnic integration. Askedwhether there are good relationships between people of different ethnic or social backgrounds, 40 per cent of clergy in the most deprived areas agreed that this was the case ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’. The least deprived areas reported the highest number of good relationships, with just 57 per cent of church leaders agreeing.

Meanwhile, only 7 per cent of clergy said they held regular activities in their parish for providing opportunities for people of different faiths to get to know each other, while 35 per cent said they were not currently involved in any.

The report also found that only 19 per cent of clergy agreed that people have opportunities to identify, develop and use their skills in the most deprived areas, compared to 48 per cent among the least deprived.

Only 19 per cent of clergy said their parishes held regular activities to help people to identify, develop and use their skills.

The survey of 1,094 church leaders conducted in September and October 2017 was completed online by Church of England incumbent status clergy – the most senior clergy in a parish or group of parishes.