Religion, Charity and Britain

This is from the i of 28 December by Nick Spencer. It’s a great article as it fits with anecdotal stuff I’ve heard, of homeless people being able to stay a few nights in a church, of various events being held for the poor who are not necessarily Christians. But also, beyond this article, sometimes I see groups of people setting up street kitchens for the poor – one of whom are Sikhs who come down from Birmingham to help out the poor in Cardiff. There’s a lot of unrecognised good work being carried on by groups who don’t get recognised. Also, the fact that so many churches have buildings that they know should not be empty gives them an incentive to put them to practical use:

Breathing life into Britain’s churches

Christians know what success looks like – and how to get there.

Of the many momentous changes for which 2016 will be remembered this one is not yet well known: “Christian” stopped being the default identity of people born in these islands. Affiliation to the church has fallen off a cliff over the last 2 generations and people re now more likely to choose “none” for their religious identity than “christian” or indeed any other religion. This is a momentous shift.

The picture of religion’s diminishing input to society is mirrored elsewhere – but it hides a more hopeful truth. Church attendance – a different thing to affiliation – has also declined over the last decade, though not quite as precipitously. Here, the growth of new, independent and migrant churches has helped offset the decline in mainstream denominations.

Which leave us to turn to a surprising trend amid all this doom and gloom. That is: the level of engagement that Christian communities have with wider society has in fact increased.

Recent surveys and data from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, confirm the anecdotal evidence we have repeatedly encountered since 2006. There has, in a number of different ways, been an increase in the contribution of Christians to heir local communities. Fro one, more and more churches and Christian charities are getting involved in the delivery of “services”. These vary hugely from Christians
Against Poverty (CAP), debt advice centres, food banks,mental health programmes, street pastors, homeless shelters and refuges,and asylum support, through to the equally important mum-and-toddlers clubs,OAP luncheon clubs and befriending services, children and youth work, depression and anxiety counselling services, and much else besides.

What is especially noteworthy about many of these activities is that they are not seen as “bolt-ons”, extras that some churches do when they’re not spending their time singing and clapping on a Sunday morning. Rather, many of these activities are done as part of worship, ways of simultaneously loving God and loving thy neighbour – not being forced to choose between the two of them.

These various trends suggest that the church of the future (at least in the UK) will be smaller – at least in the sense of their being fewer people who call themselvesChristian – but more intensely activist.; in effect, a smaller church but a more Christ-like one.

But the trends also suggest a way forward through one of the knottiest problems that this tumultuous yer has thrown up about contemporary society, namely the problem of public legitimacy…

We don’t trust institutions and whereas the question of who has the right to speak in a liberal society is not a difficult one – in principle everyone does: that’s the definition of a liberal society – the question of who has the right to be herd, the right actually to inform and shape our common life, is more problematical.

We no longer heed the editor of The Times, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury – the 3 people, it was famously said in the 1930s, whose opinions actually mattered. But nor do we naturally trust our wider system of elected representatives, or those who report on them, let alone those who might fund them, or regulate them. The problem is that while such omni-scepticism might be acceptable in a teenager, it is a parlous way to run a country. There seems to be no easy way out here and no one, last of all Britain’s official churches, is likely to regain complete public trust any time soon. What might replace our once-held faith in these institutions, however, is a more local and practical trust.

Public legitimacy in the21st century could well be grounded in a body’s active, tangible and measurable contribution to the wider public good. Not “believe me because I am who I am” but “Believe me because I do what I do”.

The licence to be heard over he coming years will be grounded in the ability to point to the public good that legitimises a voice and a viewpoint.

It sounds admirable, even easy. But it poses a serious challenge to everyone, whether religious or not. As Jesus Christ once said, it is “by their fruits that you shall know them”.

As with so much in modern life, the future seems to lie in our past.

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