Church and (Big) Society

We hear a lot about David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ proposal these days. Not unnaturally, faith organizations are keen to engage with it and to demonstrate the ways in which they are already involved with local communities.

In September 2010, over forty leaders of various Christian bodies and charities met with policy advisers for the Big Society to start a conversation about Big Society and the Church. This grouping has since expanded and is now known as the Cinnamon Network. Members include the Church of England and the Salvation Army.

One early outcome of the network’s deliberations was to commission some research into the Church’s current involvement in local social action, to enhance Government and public understanding of its extent and importance. In late October and early November church leaders were asked to complete a questionnaire on the subject.

Several thousand Christian places of worship in the UK were approached, of which 284 filled in the survey. The low response rate, the bias towards larger churches (51% of those making returns had fewer than 100 worshippers compared with 70% in the 2005 English church census) and the probable disproportionately evangelical character of the sample should incline us to caution in interpreting the survey data.

Nevertheless, the results are not without interest in providing an indicative picture of the Church as provider of social capital. A 16-page analysis of the findings, apparently prepared by Geoff Knott, can be found at:

The churches which responded estimated that they had delivered 439,000 hours of volunteer service during the past twelve months, an average of 1,925 hours each. Unsurprisingly, the larger the church, the more time and resources were devoted to social initiatives. The total went up markedly (to 8,582 hours) for churches with over 500 adults in the congregation.

A projection of the hours volunteered per annum against the England base of churches by size was 55 million for England alone. A projection against population and churchgoing for the whole UK was 72 million hours. Both figures exclude voluntary work by Christians in the community that is not initiated by a church, for instance for a charity.

The churches in the sample estimated that they directly contributed £1,234,000 to finance social action projects, an average of £7,568 per church spent on an average of 3.3 initiatives. This was scaled up to £224 million a year for all English churches and, on a full economic costing, to between £1.5 and £2 billion per annum.

68% of responding places of worship planned to increase their social initiatives in the next twelve months and only 3% to reduce them, with 29% unchanged. 81% of churches thought it essential or very important to maintain their Christian distinctiveness in social action in the face of the requirements of equality law.

The top ten social action initiatives reported by the sample churches were: youth work (apart from children’s ministry); mothers and toddlers; caring for the elderly; community improvements; marriage counselling and courses; debt counselling; parenting advice and courses; helping the homeless; street patrols; and helping with addiction.

The same list largely shaped the priorities for spending any windfall £10,000. Youth work, carried out by three-quarters of the churches which replied, represented 32% of the hours and 40% of the money expended on social initiatives. Activities with mothers and toddlers accounted for 18% of hours but just 5% of funding.

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