Collaborative Covid work of faith groups praised by APPG report

RELATIONS between faith groups and local councils have been revitalized and deepened by the pandemic, a new report suggests.

Forced to collaborate on emergency food provision during the first lockdown, local authorities and religious organizations have discovered a new respect for one another, prompting further partnerships in everything from domestic-violence prevention to emergency fostering.

That is the conclusion of a new report, Keeping the Faith 2.0commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Faith and Society, and carried out by Professor Chris Baker, from Goldsmiths, University of London.

The report is a follow-up to a 2020 report which surveyed almost 200 councils in Britain, and discovered that 60 per cent had worked with a faith-based food bank to support residents during the lockdowns.

More than two-thirds of local authorities reported that their interaction with churches and religious charities had increased because of the pandemic. Now, Professor Baker said at the launch of his second report, on 7 September, the partnerships between councils and faith groups had grown and expanded far beyond emergency food relief.

The scope of the work he had seen covered vaccination and health-care provision, domestic violence, climate change, refugees, hate crime, and even fostering and adoption.

While this latest report did not replicate the survey of councils, more than 30 in-depth interviews with figures in local government and the faith sector had revealed a change in how local government viewed churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, and their social- action efforts.

Until as recently as five years ago, councils had been wary, or even hostile to, religious groups seeking to collaborate on such projects, Professor Baker said.

But being thrown together by the crisis of the pandemic had broken down barriers, and meant that productive new relationships were forming, going far beyond emergency provision and towards more long-term partnerships.

Sir Stephen Timms, the Christian Labor MP who chairs the APPG, acknowledged that religious people were seen as “rather weird” and, therefore, historically shunned by local authorities.

“As a result, communities have missed out on the contribution faith groups can offer,” he said. “But the pandemic changed this, because councils had to depend on churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and gurdwaras. Not because they wanted to be nice to the faith groups, but because, in community after community, only faith groups were in a position to provide the vital lifesaving support that was needed.”

The pandemic contribution of Britain’s religious communities was also acknowledged by the Minister for Local Government, Faith and Communities, Paul Scully, who reported halfway through the event, to much cheering by those present, that he had just found out that the new Prime Minister was keeping him on the job.

“I know you will continue to provide seemingly limitless reserves of commitment and good will and trust to people who face difficult times,” he told the audience of faith leaders, charity workers, and local government officials.

“The Government wants to work with you on that, to co-create the kind of solutions and world we want to live in.”

Mr Scully said that the Government was already trying to cement the gains in this area through its Faith New Deal: a £1-million pilot program that has awarded grants so far to 16 faith-based organizations working on mental health, debt advice, employability , and food poverty (News, 25 March).

“That’s an idea I believe in, and the Government believes in. When we work together, we are more than the sum of our parts. That’s just as important now as it was during Covid, and faith groups will be vital to get through the months ahead.”

Many of those at the launch echoed Mr Scully’s references to the difficult winter ahead, and the view that faith groups needed to be included in society’s response to the energy crisis.

Already, 1000 churches had signed up to the Warm Welcome scheme, pledging to open their buildings for those who could not afford to heat their own homes, the event heard.

A recurring theme, however, was the lack of money to pursue these burgeoning partnerships, with many local authorities unable to fund even professional and deserving projects after austerity had affected their budgets.

“Many respondents regarded the traditional funding models as no longer fit for purpose in a post-Covid-19 world. More and more people chase less and less pots of money,” Professor Baker said.

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