The pandemic has highlighted anew the positive contribution of faith groups to our communities

This is a good time of year to reflect on the contribution of religious faith in our society. When I was growing up fifty years ago, it was declining steeply. Many concluded that the decline was terminal. Today, the picture looks different – especially in the light of the pandemic.

Back in April, I was leafing through emails on Good Friday morning. Two constituents asked for help because they had no food. I have been referring constituents to foodbanks for ten years, but didn’t know of any open over the holiday weekend. Further down my inbox, I found a message from the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz. She advised that an email before 10am to the Vicar of Ascension Church, Royal Docks, would secure same-day delivery of a food parcel. I took the advice. Both my constituents received parcels.

There has been no record in my borough of the Council partnering with faith groups. It would have been unthinkable when I was Leader of the Council thirty years ago. This year, however, it has happened on a large scale. Churches and mosques have been key partners in “Newham Food Alliance”, co-ordinated by the Council, which ensures families who would otherwise go hungry have been kept safe. Church-based foodbanks report a tenfold increase in demand. One mosque-based group is giving food to almost 1,000 overseas students every week: their jobs have ended in the pandemic and family support has dried up through the impact of the pandemic back home.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, which I chair, has been highlighting since 2012 the positive contribution of faith groups to communities around the country. Groups often report an uneasy relationship with their local council. Council officers have been wary of them – worrying that dealing with one group would offend others, or that they were in any case only really interested in trying to convert people.

Anecdotal evidence, like mine from Newham, indicated that something different was happening in the pandemic. The All-Party Group commissioned a study from Goldsmith’s, University of London. The researchers sent a questionnaire to every local authority in the UK. Almost half responded. The report found “a significant increase in the numbers and depth of relations between local authorities and faith communities” and that “local authorities say they have discovered a new appreciation of the agility, flexibility and professionalism of faith groups and faith-based organisations in their responses to the pandemic”. Local authorities report their experiences of working in partnership with faith groups during the pandemic, often on food distribution, as “overwhelmingly positive” – and expect to deepen the relationships further in the future.

But does all this mean any change in the frequently reported trend of declining attendance at public worship? There is some evidence that it may. In work for the Church Urban Fund, researchers at think-tank Theos found that “social action leads to church growth when it enables congregations to develop meaningful relationships with those they would not otherwise have done, or who might not otherwise have come into sustained contact with the church”. It appears that newcomers who join churches are not so much the intended beneficiaries of social action, as volunteers coming forward to support it. “Volunteering in church-based projects or activities sees people at the least reappraise churches and their beliefs, and often sees people re-engage in Christian faith.”

I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas.

Stephen Timms MP

The Rt Hon Stephen Timms is MP for East Ham and was MP for Newham North East before that. He chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee and is the Labour Party's Faith Envoy. He was Chief Secretary to the Treasury (2006-7) and Shadow Minister for Employment (2010 - 2015). Before entering Parliament, he worked in the telecommunications industry.

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