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The Churches' Role in the Civic Life of the Nation : House of Lords Debate

Friday 19th May 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury called a debate in the House of Lords on "the contribution of the role of the churches in the civic life of towns and cities, the churches' partnership with other bodies and the part they play in addressing the problems of deprivation".

In this well-attended debate, many peers spoke of the work being done by churches and people of faith across the country to build community life and fight deprivation.

The full text of the Archbishop's opening and closing speeches are reproduced below:

The Archbishop of Canterbury (opening remarks):

My Lords, urban regeneration is very clearly on the public agenda. Over some 15 years we have seen a series of major initiatives directed both at the physical infrastructure of urban communities and, more importantly, at the capacities of the people who live in them. Since 1998, the New Deal for Communities programme has been the chief focus for this engagement, and it has made an enormous contribution to changing the tacit presumption that either central provision or pure voluntary labour alone can meet the challenges. But in much of the discussion around sustainable communities and the like, many have become uncomfortably aware of a degree of uncertainty as to how to relate to religious groups as well as an unease about the democratic deficit that can appear in regeneration schemes.

I have asked for this debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to air these matters, largely because of the conviction that the full democratising and localising of such schemes, and the proper kind of collaboration with the Churches and other faith groups, belong together. I believe this conviction can be amply justified by some of the stories and statistics I shall be sharing with your Lordships today.

All those who work most closely with urban communities, especially in the estates that surround urban centres, agree that the fundamental issue remains that of how to engage local people in a way that builds mutual trust, collective self-reliance and a conviction that change can be effected and sustained. In this task, the role of communities of faith is of central importance, as was flagged in the Urban White Paper of 2000. And as we have learnt to talk more about social capital, it has been acknowledged that intentional communities which appeal to motivations beyond individual profit or short-term popularity have a unique role in galvanising urban, and of course not only urban, populations towards taking the kind of corporate responsibility for their future that they will need if change is to last. We are talking about a wealth of relatively small-scale projects and, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to outline a few examples that may illustrate the range of what has recently been going on.

One of the major issues in deprived urban estates is, of course, debt and the activities of numbers of wholly unscrupulous and unaccountable loan agencies. One of the most effective ways in which the capital of local churches and other faith groups can be mobilised is in providing reliable credit facilities. Noble Lords will no doubt recall the Tyneside riots of the mid-1990s associated with the Meadowell estate. Lately, this estate has seen the development of the Cedarwood Trust, a church-linked initiative in partnership with the local citizens' advice bureau, which addresses head-on a number of pressing concerns. It offers the facility of a credit union—it is no exaggeration to say that the credit union movement in England and Wales, still something of a Cinderella in terms of public awareness, would be substantially weaker without the widespread support of the Churches and faith communities—and makes saving as well as borrowing possible through loan redemption schemes. It also campaigns locally and nationally against the outrageous liberties of unregulated loan companies. The DTI, I am happy to say, has already responded by commissioning research on the need to cap interest rates charged by door-to-door loan companies whose unregulated activities continue to be such a scandal.

This instance pinpoints more general issues around the management of funding in the regeneration process. A depressingly familiar problem is what happens when significant sums are injected into communities that have not yet developed viable and trustworthy vehicles for deciding priorities and implementing programmes. My second case is from the history of the Braunstone Community Association in Leicester. This was one of the first Pathfinder Partnerships announced in 1998, with an initial grant of nearly £50 million to address the problems of a ward identified as the most deprived in the East Midlands. Within five years it was in what seemed to be terminal crisis.

"It was like staring at a road crash", was the view of a commentator in the New Start magazine. Spending authority had been withdrawn, leadership was in chaos and the entire grant was under threat. It was in 2003 that the Anglican diocese of Leicester became directly involved in salvaging this programme, with the Archdeacon of Leicester being appointed as independent chair and with Keith Beaumont, a committed Anglican in the diocese, as chief executive. In 2005, the Braunstone Community Association was runner-up in the Outstanding NDC Partnership of the Year awards and a finalist in the Deputy Prime Minister's Award for Sustainable Communities.

All this has something to do with three features peculiar to the involvement of religious bodies. These need some careful reflection from grant-giving bodies, governmental and voluntary. First and simplest, communities of faith commonly represent a long-term presence in a neighbourhood. Classically in the form of a parish church, they speak of a commitment and an availability of social capital that is not likely to be withdrawn when things get difficult. In a world of time-limited grants and often desperate scrambling to create leadership and management structures that will survive the somewhat breathless rhythms of funding regimes, they allow a longer view. They are likely to be there still when particular schemes end in wreckage. And it is a hugely significant fact that the clergy of the historic churches are almost certainly going to be middle to long-term residents of the area, visibly sharing the challenges of the community.

Secondly—and not at all unconnected with that first point—Churches and faith groups are still likely to be seen as trustworthy brokers in most communities. When substantial funds are made available, there is obviously a question as to who speaks for a community in identifying where and how these funds should be spent, and much energy can be expended in conflicts over this. I quote here from one parish priest who, with his small congregation, was intimately involved with an NDC project in Norwich. He writes:" The transition from a hand-to-mouth family structure to an institutional model with clear roles and accountabilities was a painful one for some organizations, and vital energy was burnt off in exasperation".

Somehow, a forum has to emerge in such circumstances which has real legitimacy and which manages not to create further feelings of exclusion and victimisation or to convey to local people a patronising message about their need to be managed from elsewhere. For all sorts of reasons, the Church is regularly a body that is seen to be capable of giving that kind of legitimacy, not because people are necessarily looking for a transcendental ground for their political morality—although, of course, some of us would find that a very attractive possibility—but more because, simply, the Church is seen as not having a vested local interest to defend.

That this is the perception is surprising to many commentators, who still seem to view the Church as entirely a fading middle-class leisure occupation. To speak for a moment from my own experience in the south Wales valleys, I have regularly been challenged and sobered by the moral vehemence with which the Churches' necessary social role has been argued by some very secular local activists. I can recall attending a rally on behalf of the miners in Merthyr Tydfil in 1993—the only occasion when I had the remarkable experience of sharing a platform with Arthur Scargill—when the then secretary of the Welsh TUC introduced me as a speaker by saying that the Church was there in that particular context to speak for all those who did not have certain kinds of protection—the protection of trade unions, the protection of regular incomes, the protection of party interests of one sort or another. It was the group that had the freedom to hold other groups together because it was not simply fighting its own corner. That remark was, for me, one of the defining insights of my time as Bishop of Monmouth, and it remains so today.

The Church, then, has a freedom to convene interest groups to a table where some kind of common interest can be worked out. It offers, you might say, a necessary space in the social map beyond the stand-offs of rival bids and concerns. It can assist in creating a sense of legitimate authority and unified purpose. It should not need saying, but perhaps it does, that this credibility depends a great deal on Churches and religious groups not concentrating their energies on issues that affect only them, or, worse still, sending the message that they are looking for some kind of lasting control in a situation which they can exploit for the good of their own membership. It is good to know that that does not seem to be the perception on the ground.

But a third and final point about why the Churches and other religious groups have this kind of credibility is that, of course, very simply, they provide a pool of volunteer enthusiasm—a pool of people who are used to being motivated by the call to make a community work and who have some idea of the way in which healthy communities can live from an exchange of gifts and strengths. Research in 2001 concluded that 25 per cent of churchgoers from the main denominations were regularly involved in community work and projects of social welfare, so we are talking about a base group of volunteers amounting to, perhaps, 1 million or more.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that when we speak about the Church's involvement in regeneration we are primarily speaking of clerical professionals at work. The energy and the specific and relevant knowledge—and often the long-term commitment—are supplied by lay people, who hold together their awareness of what their faith makes possible with their sensitivity to local conditions and histories. I think here of a project in Deptford—the 999 Club—which, although originated by a local parish priest, now depends almost entirely on local people for its maintenance.

So if Churches are trusted, it is, as much as anything, because local people who worship in them are recognised as having credibility with their next-door neighbours. That means that the regeneration philosophy is not about an imported system but about ordinary people being assisted to communicate their own vision and sense of worth to ordinary neighbours.

In what I have said so far, I have concentrated mainly on work resourced by the Church of England, but this should in no way be taken to minimise the contribution of other Churches and other faith groups. Not least in the communities of West Yorkshire, the co-operation between Christians and Muslims in regeneration work is one of the most hopeful signs for the whole pattern of interfaith engagement. I have been delighted to see that at work. I saw it at work on 7 July last year, when I happened to be visiting precisely those areas as the news came through of the nightmare events in London that day, and I could see the reaction of both communities to that challenge and crisis.

However, the history of this country means that the Church of England generally remains a focal presence, even when its active numbers are small. Because of its universal material presence in the shape of parish churches, it embodies a sort of popular awareness of where this particular kind of social capital may be found. As a result, it is often in a position to open a surprising number of doors, both for and within a local community.

But let me mention one other notable example of work, done initially under Roman Catholic auspices, as it illustrates another and a deeper dimension of what we are thinking about here. Some years ago, three Roman Catholic nuns moved into a small maisonette in a tower block on the Heath Town estate in Wolverhampton, a notoriously deprived area. They organised no projects; they ran no campaigns. They simply went on with their life of prayer and attempted to be available to their neighbours. The sheer presence of the sisters proved to be the catalyst for a wide range of new developments—in literacy training, in computer skills, in holiday events for children and so on—in the estate. It was as if that presence acted simply as a reminder to the people around of what was possible for human beings, even in such circumstances. People had been taken seriously, listened to, shown respect and patience, and a difference was consequently made in how they saw themselves and their possibilities. In some respects, this is the most exciting story of all, since it demonstrates how much depends fundamentally on prayer and costly witness before anything else. This work is mostly and rightly hidden, and has nothing to do with funding and programmes.

I want to conclude by returning to this wider public world and noting one or two of the implications of all I have said for public policy. The recent report in March this year of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Faith as Social Capital underlines the needs for change that can be identified within faith communities and public agencies. Religious communities often do not adequately utilise the potential of their membership. It is still a minority who are active; there are sometimes issues around authority in such groups in that unsympathetic, or simply unaware, leadership can block the best development of potential. They need to give fuller support to their members who are involved in significant regeneration work and look critically at some questions around gender and power that hold things back.

This, argues the Rowntree report, underlines the need for national and local government to invest in the training and capacity building of people within faith communities. And this, the report stresses, means looking hard at some of the current conventions of funding such as over-regulation and imposed models of management that do not fit a local and small-scale context, and the timescale on which many grants are premised. One of the most often-heard frustrations around all this is to do with, for example, three-year rhythms of grant-making, which paralyse confident planning for the longer, haul and consume huge amounts of energy and paperwork.

There needs also to be an awareness of how resources that are sometimes seen as internal to a religious group merit support because of their wider use in a community. This applies most obviously to religious buildings, an issue which has been much in the public eye in recent weeks. The endemic suspicion of local faith-based social initiatives shown by some local authorities needs to be challenged where there is solid and utterly uncontroversial evidence of social

capital formation, to use the language of the report. We are not looking at some kind of franchising of essential community building to an eccentric and perhaps dangerous cluster of minorities, but at mobilising the immense capacity that religious communities embody for the health of all, in accordance with the many instances of good practice that are available. Last, but not least importantly, there must be a willingness to learn from local action and advocacy groups—religious and otherwise—what the hard issues are on the ground, a willingness to listen to bodies such as the Cedarwood Trust, referred to earlier, on matters such as the scandal of unregulated loan companies.

Next Monday will see the publication of the report of the Churches' Commission on Urban Life and Faith, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson. It is entitled Faithful Cities. It marks the 21st anniversary of the publication of the famous Faith in the City report, which prompted the creation of the Church Urban Fund. This fund has distributed more than £50 million since its foundation, resourcing nearly £5,000 faith-related initiatives across the country. The fund is also to be relaunched shortly, with a new and more focused remit.

The new report recognises the great changes that have taken place since 1985 but reinforces the conviction that the Churches have a key role. It speaks of the creation of what it calls faithful capital—that kind of social capital that builds trust and capacity for long-term faithful commitment. That is what this is ultimately about—meeting the hunger for dependable and stable support systems which allow communities to grow. Religious bodies are not the only source for this, but they have a unique reach and a unique hinterland. Our urban communities cannot do without this vital contribution. I beg to move for Papers.


The Archbishop of Canterbury [closing remarks]:


My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the quality of the debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has just reminded us, challenges have come not only from but to the Church. I hope that your Lordships will allow me to respond to one or two of the challenges which have arisen, and to speak a little about how we go forward from there.

The observation of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on the length of sermons is one challenge, at least, on which I can promise reasonably prompt action. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, spoke about employment issues. I note the involvement of many Churches in the development of local employment forums across the country. That is clearly a growth point where the Churches and other faith communities have enormous potential. I am most grateful for that point and hope that we can do more about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke to great effect about issues concerning racial tension and racial prejudice that afflict us constantly. It is true that the Methodist Church, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church all issued denunciations of the BNP, through various bodies and leaders, in the run-up to recent elections. It is also true that more concerted action on that is needed from the Churches. I take that very much to heart and promise that it will be picked up.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, spoke about sex trafficking. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that about a year ago a charity was set up, Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe, which has already grown a great deal in scope and energy in the past 12 months. I declare an interest as its patron. This is one element of the Churches' response to what I am sure noble Lords will agree is one of the most appalling social tragedies that we face.

The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, spoke about interfaith work in and through schools. Other noble Lords spoke of the desirability of multi-faith school institutions. I have discussed that issue with the Chief Rabbi in the past year. We are looking at initiatives that might be taken to forward that agenda. The further agenda of what the Churches might do in that and other contexts with children who are being looked after is one that I take very much to heart. I promise that the Churches will want to consider that.

Finally among those challenges, I note with appreciation the very gracious and generous remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and I take to heart once more his observations on methods of campaigning in what we might call areas of high passion and strong principle. I am sure that the noble Lord will accept my assurance that certain of the methods used in the recent campaign were not those which any on these Benches or any in the mainstream of the Churches would wish to endorse.

Two issues of some interest arose, which merit further exploration. One is a point raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the physical or built environment in which we live, as it affects not only church buildings but the entire physical environment, which is affected and dictated by planning policy and planning vision. There are many questions to be asked about how the planning of the built environment in communities of deprivation has in recent years not often served the best interests of true community cohesion. I take encouragement from the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, on the subject of "place" in that connection.

Another issue of great significance that has been raised is monitoring as a means of bringing constructive, behaviour-changing influence to bear, especially in the lives of young people. That is one of those areas where we are bound to recognise, as has been said so often in today's debate, that our main resource and source of capital is people, and in a very particular sense in many communities it is young people. To encourage further the practice of monitoring and the highest possible standards in implementing it is surely one step that needs to be taken in that context. As for the capital that is represented by local people, several noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, have spoken about the problem created by the lack of remuneration or simple practical and financial support for volunteers. Is it time for us to think, in the middle to long term, of some kind of national capacity fund, which would be applicable to the needs of the many, many people in that sort of position?

In sum, a number of noble Lords speaking in today's debate have in effect expressed their sense of what might be called a "not only" element in our policy. We are committed to healthy and democratic citizenship, but not only citizenship. It was the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who phrased it in that way. It is not only citizenship but something rather more, which has to do with a vision of what is appropriately human and what kind of change human beings can bring about. We have heard of our shared commitment to the improvement of material conditions and the material environment, but not only that, because several noble Lords have referred very powerfully to the problems of emotional deprivation. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, for her remarks on that subject. Emotional privation is very hard to address by statutory and public instrument, and yet no society can finally live and flourish without addressing it.

We have noted the commitment to work and employment, and yet not only employment. Simply having something to do is not enough if a sense of worth and a sense of liberty do not go with it. We have expressed, quite properly, our commitment to human rights, and yet we have noted that human rights in themselves fall short of that active, celebratory, mutual spirit that makes a society not only a place of legally enforceable claims, but a place of mutual appreciation and mutual service.

For all those "not only" elements to be kept in play in the public discourse of this country and of other countries, there needs to be what the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, called the "space", or the "brokering space", that is offered by Churches and other faith communities. It is a space in which questions about the kind of persons and society we wish to see can be raised and discussed with honesty. I conclude by reassuring your Lordships that the keeping open of that space is a primary commitment and a lasting commitment for the Churches and for other faith groups. I hope that the forthcoming report, about which much has been said, will open up that debate further, and I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, will agree that she owes me at least a cup of tea and a potted-meat sandwich for all the publicity that I have given the report this afternoon.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, reminded us, we have seen evidence of a high level of common will on this subject. We have seen an awareness of, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, put it, the desirability of partnership between Church, including other faith communities, and nation. That convergent and constructive vision has been celebrated appropriately today.

I am deeply grateful for all the observations that noble Lords have offered on this subject and, accordingly, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

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