Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Reimagining Church in Action

19 Apr 2018

William Temple Scholar Val Barron considers the challenges and opportunities of Christian based social enterprise.

Like the Archbishop of Canterbury I have been doing much reimagining recently, although my focus has been church social action in the North East. I won’t repeat all the poverty statistics that are regularly churned out and almost immunise us to the reality of the millions of personal stories. What I will share are the conversations I have had over Easter that reflect the challenges facing congregations and clergy who are supporting people in their communities that are struggling.

Alan called me to discuss how he could raise funds to buy a tumble-drier for the local toddlers’ group as children were arriving with damp clothes and the mams said it would really help them to have this facility. A local vicar in Hartlepool has set up a crowdfunding page to raise money for a kitchen in their church where they feed up to 100 people every week, and a local vicar asked me to help find funds to take children off the estate during the summer holidays.

Like others around the country, churches are increasingly responding to needs in their communities. The latest CUF report Church in Action shows 70% of Anglican churches run three or more organised activities for the benefit of their local communities, such as parent/carer and toddler groups, community cafes, lunch clubs for older people, holiday clubs and youth work.

However, these church-based responses are insecure and vulnerable, not only reflecting the reality of many churches but also the ‘charity model’ we have adopted. While much of our activity is reliant upon volunteers there are inevitably costs associated although often relatively small. As my good friend Rev Bill pointed out ‘sometimes the church finds itself in the middle of a dependency food chain’. A cog on a machine turning ever depleting funds into services.

We find ourselves in vulnerable situations when it comes to social action for a number of reasons including;

  1. Being too small. Over the last four years in Durham Diocese we have been working with our communities and providing grassroot holiday activities in areas where families find the holidays, especially during the summer, challenging. Thousands of children and families have enjoyed fun, food and friendship and many other year-round activities have resulted from these. However, time and time again we miss out on funding as the majority of churches don’t have the capacity to meet the funding requirements. And as Greg Smith1 noted back in 2004 local groups lacked information and capacity about opportunities and how to access funding. A report looking at Third Sector Trends in the North of England found small- and medium-sized third sector organisations in the poorest areas are much more likely to be experiencing significant income loss.
  2. Being too big. There are many charities across the region that are well established church-based projects. As they have grown over time a number of staff have been employed, usually from the local community to run the projects and support the volunteers. They now find themselves in a cycle of looking for funding, taking up valuable staff time and leaving staff and the projects feeling vulnerable and unsure of the future.
  3. Being church. A recent local grant was awarded subject to the church ‘adopting local constitution that clearly enables you to undertake non-religious community activity’. Although in its second year the ecumenical group was well regarded by community, local authority and funders there was still a deal of anxiety around funding faith groups. How do we remain authentic and honest while shaping our agenda to fit funding priorities?  As Elaine Graham 2 reminds us we find ourselves between a ‘‘rock’’ of religious resurgence—or at least renewed visibility—and the ‘‘hard place’’ of secularism.
  4. We are not simply another service provider. In Fullness of Life Bethany Eckley, Anna Ruddick and Rachel Walker explore how the church aligns their Christian faith more deeply with their community engagement; recognising that every person bears the image of God, we are designed to be in community, and the Church is a prophetic community. They look at models of co-production and asset-based community development opposed to the service delivery models that they feel have sometimes been uncritically adopted to respond to local need.

How do we understand Christian charity? A few years ago, I heard Professor John Barclay from Durham University giving a talk entitled ‘Debt, Gift and Reciprocity: From Charity to Co-Interest in the New Testament’. Although texts regarding wealth and poverty readily spring to mind, John warned that unless we paused and put things into context we could get things badly wrong. He reminded the audience that around 90% of the population were relatively poor and therefore co-dependency was central to community. He concluded that the principle strongly endorsed by the New Testament was reciprocity opposed to the one-way gift. He felt that although today’s economic structures were very different the goal of Christian charity should be to create networks of mutual gift and mutual dependence. If we reflect upon all the Church Social action we are involved in, how much would be shaped by reciprocity and how much is a one-way gift?

So how can we reimagine the church in action in a way in which allows us to be authentic, sustainable and not a cog in the dependency chain?

Wouldn’t it be exciting if our churches were places that worked with the community and built upon the skills and talents in these precious places to develop new relationships, share skills, build employment and economy?

Local social entrepreneur Kate Welch believes that “The Social Enterprise approach addresses all these issues by responding to poverty and other social problems with the right solutions and a business model that makes long term financial sustainability more probable. Exploring this at the outset with a clear vision for the social action, what will it achieve and how will it earn income, makes raising start-up funding creating enduring social impact more possible.”

My research over the next few years will be exploring how Christian based Social Enterprise could impact communities in the North East… so watch this space.

It will take a lot of reimagining and risk taking although as my friend reminded me, the church used to be a vanguard leading the way to tackle social justice issues. Imagine the impact of that now!


1 Greg Smith, “Faith in Community and Communities of Faith? Government Rhetoric and Religious Identity in Urban Britain,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19 (2004)

2 Graham, E. 2013. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age. London: SCM Press.

More blogs on religion and public life…

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Tim Howles

Universal Credit – Universal Chaos?
Greg Smith

Broken, Apologetics and Faith in the Media
Rosie Dawson

Finding Hope in a Post-Brexit Future
Chris Baker

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1 Comment

Adrain Wait.

19/04/2018 10:31

“Val Barron considers the challenges and opportunities of Christian based social enterprise.”

Val, you stated: “research over the next few years will be exploring how Christian based Social Enterprise could impact communities …”

As Ecclesiastes informs us there is nothing ‘new’ under the sub. During my time at University I manage to gain two 3mth placements with the Dearne Valley Project – And I worked with a Rev Mike Keen: who was the Church of England’s first and last ‘Minister for the Unemployed’ – He was employed by the Sheffield Diocese 1985-? I worked with him on one project in Mexborough South Yorkshire 1987/88 – The DVP worked between three boroughs: Rotherham/Barnsley/Doncaster.
I worked at Mexborough mainly on a community project called “Still-Alive”. There were various social enterprises set up in Sheffield, Goldthorpe, Mexborough, Wath-on-deane (where Rev Mike Keen was based), and others… My point in contacting you is I wondered if the history of this venture was secured and stored by the Sheffield Diocese and if you could access its resources – I feel it would be a very, very useful resource for you Val in your forthcoming research? All the very Best, Adrian Wait.

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