CHURCH leaders have called for urgent government support to protect church buildings after a new report highlighted the UK’s increasing reliance on mainly-volunteer led services including food banks, mental health counselling and youth groups based in religious buildings.

The House of Good report from the National Churches Trust branded the nation’s church buildings a ‘National Help Service’ after finding they provided £12.4 billion worth of essential social and economic support to local communities during the 12 months up until May 2020.

The report found that church buildings acts as a 'ready-made' network of responsive hubs, providing increasing levels of care and wellbeing to communities. The majority of churches found a way to provide community support during the COVID-19 pandemic but the report warns that many of their buildings are under threat, especially in towns and cities where they deliver the most value, as funding for essential maintenance and repair dries up.

Thoughts from Bradford

Revd Jimmy Hinton of St Stephen’s West Bowling in Bradford, said people have been accessing support for a range of reasons, from finding a "sense of community" to internet and job application guidance.

The Revd said: “We have people coming in and dropping in all the time for a sense of community, to get food during the course of the day; we offer teas and coffees endlessly and whatever food there is. We do work with people looking for jobs or needing support in applying for jobs, and do a lot of coaching and mentoring, and advising and supporting. Even practical things: we have the internet so we are able to provide internet and WiFi for people who don't have it at home.

“Some of those things are done by Council and Government and by other services, but what we observe is that when the funding for that stops the service stops, or when the funding changes the service changes. A local parish church is committed to its community always.”

'Essential need'

Claire Walker, chief executive of the National Churches Trust, said: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, church buildings were placed in the same category as gyms and cinemas and forced to lock down. But for the most vulnerable in our society, the support church buildings offer is not a recreational choice – it’s an essential need – and lockdown served to highlight the increasing reliance of people on this support. These buildings have become our National Help Service.

“But this is a National Help Service that we risk losing and may never be able to replace if these buildings do not get the financial support they need. Each year, we receive thousands of requests for help from churches desperately in need of repairing the roof, or installing kitchen facilities and toilets, but we are only able to fund a quarter of these. For this reason, we are urgently calling on local and national government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to recognise the continuing need for their support.”

'Social value'

Will Watt, Director of State of Life, social impact and value specialists, which carried out the study said: “Evidencing the full social value of the church building and its congregation and volunteers was a pioneering and rewarding challenge. The findings reveal that churches are without doubt ‘key places’ in our community. Churches provide a ready-made and extremely cost-effective source of help, support and care. This care radiates out from the buildings into our communities.

“The value we present in the report could easily be four or six times higher using other methods consistent with the Treasury Green Book.”

Backing from Archbishops

Meanwhile Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, Joint Presidents of the National Churches Trust said: “During lockdown, churches around the country continued to use their buildings for the benefit of society as people suffered the fallout of the pandemic. The value that church buildings provide in offering a space where all are welcomed and loved might be priceless, but looking after them has a very large cost. This report makes the argument for why it is appropriate for church-based community services to be funded by national government.”

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