It seems somewhat counterintuitive, in an age of increasing secularity, and with an incessant stream of triumphant tweets from the National Secular Society, that the world’s perception of the Church should be actually improving. And given the appalling recent scandals of paedophile priests, child abuse and chronic cover-up which have rocked the churches of England and Rome, it is even more surprising. And then there’s been the lock-down of the churches (and lock-out of clergy) during the coronavirus pandemic, when it seemed as though the Church of England in particular had abandoned its flock. (It hadn’t, of course: we are talking about seeming.)
But a survey conducted by Savanta ComRes (commissioned in partnership by YourNeighbour and World Vision), found that those who do not identify as Christian were more likely, since the Covid-19 pandemic, to agree with the statement that the UK Church is making a positive difference in the world – 25% today, compared with 19% three years ago. More than one in three (36%) of the total UK population agree that Christian churches are making a positive difference in the world.
Pastor Agu Irukwu, Senior Pastor of Jesus House, who is supporting the YourNeighbour initiative commented: “Tens of thousands of local churches across the UK have been at the frontline of the community response to the Covid pandemic, and it is encouraging to see that the impact of that work is improving public perceptions of the Church. But there is still a lot of work to be done to fully reveal the pivotal role the Church continues to play in modern society.”
The study, which surveyed 2,170 respondents, also found that 42% of UK adults agree that local Christian churches are making a positive difference in their community with 24% disagreeing. When asked what community needs Christian churches could provide for, events for the elderly and homeless services were selected most often, with both chosen by 1 in 4 UK adults (24%), closely followed by shelter for the homeless (22%) and food/clothes/toy collection and distribution (20%).
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer commented: “I have been struck by how in this time of difficulty for our country, people have sought solace and hope in faith. It has been wonderful to see how churches have adapted to meet the needs of our communities, with countless examples of them stepping up. Now we have the vaccine, it’s a very powerful thing to see churches transforming into vaccine centres, congregations volunteering and leaders offering the hope we need.”
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, said: “The Church has been there for all of us – it’s been burying our dead, it’s been comforting the bereaved, it’s been feeding the poor and it’s been praying for the nation.” In this he was channelling great wisdom. He added: “And now the Church is determined to play a critical, central and important role in building back better and enabling us to come out of this pandemic and to be a stronger and more united nation. I know that there are millions across this country, millions of people whose faith inspires them every day to do more for those around them. Give Hope is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements but also recommit ourselves collectively to doing more for our neighbours and our neighbourhood, for our communities and our country.”
YourNeighbour is launching a campaign throughout Lent aimed at raising the profile of the work of local churches in their communities across the nation, encouraging support and raising funding for the work of these local community initiatives as they continue to help those who are grieving, suffering and anxious as a result of this crisis over the coming months.
There is a sense in which the Church is the incarnation of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society‘: people who tirelessly give their time, treasure and talent – particularly the amazingly sacrificial generosity shown by so many over the past 12 months of this crisis – to encourage, equip and enable the growth of the response of local churches to the continuing practical and spiritual needs of their communities as hope dawns for the end of this crisis and a period of healing and recovery ahead. This is the divine vocation of the Church, and the statutory-divine vocation of the Church of England.
It’s just a pity that it needs a Cabinet minister (once again) to articulate the essential missional vocation of the Church of England in such a way as to find national resonance.