The inaugural ChurchWorks Summit took place online on 11 January, bringing together more than 80 people representing church leaders, Christian organisations, and government, to have strategic discussions about the role of the Church in Covid recovery. Specifically they sought to identify specific and concrete opportunities for collaboration between Church and government to accelerate recovery in our most disadvantaged communities.
The summit was attended by government advisers from the Department of Education, Number 10, the Departments for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Health and Social Care, and it was clear there is a real desire from government officials to engage more with Christian-led initiatives as the country transitions from pandemic through to recovery.
Chaired by Bishop Paul Butler, the summit included theological reflection from Revd Dr Sam Wells with a timely reminder that ‘love your neighbour as yourself is supposed to mean look out for whom the pandemic has hit hardest and make their needs at least as central as your own convenience in calculating priorities and responses’ and that ‘times of hardship renew God’s people. It’s when things are difficult that we rediscover who God is and who we are’.
Faith Minister Kemi Badenoch spoke passionately to those present, not only thanking faith groups for their vital role both throughout the pandemic but promising to be a torchbearer in government for faith groups and to continue to champion their interests:
“While the vaccines have illuminated our shared path out of the pandemic, if COVID has taught us anything, it is that this path is never going to be a straightforward one, and there have been various bumps in the road.
It has been a challenging period with increased pressure on our hospitals and increased disruption to our way of life and I’m grateful for all the support that the faith community, churches mosques and so many other groups, have been able to provide to help us get through the pandemic.
Christianity has endured every conceivable threat over millennia – not only disease also wars and schisms. But COVID has been a very different kind of threat. The unique thing about this pandemic is that it forced us all apart. COVID thrives on social activity; we had to physically separate from one another to combat this disease, and in doing so deprive people of many of the things at the heart of Christianity - sermons, hymns, communal prayer - are built on the assumption that worshippers are going to be together to break bread. At the height of the lockdown none of that was possible, and at a critical moment when people were frightened and in need of comfort and hope, communal prayer and worship, the kind people were used to, wasn’t possible.
It was a moment when you had to live up to and embody the sentiment in the letter of James in the New Testament – to ‘find joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance’. You all came to understand better than most that a pandemic brings to the surface the hopes and fears that we all share. And as church leaders you helped so many people to process the avalanche of emotions brought on by the virus. And you had to try and answer the unanswerable - of why was this happening, and where was God in all of this.
This faith offered much needed solace to thousands of people across the country during moments of acute grief. Countless individuals and families turned to their faith in God in their final moments throughout the pandemic; there is no price you can put on the love and support that they received from members of the church. You were there at the height of lock-down and you have been instrumental in this country’s ongoing recovery from COVID.
In terms of the collaboration between church and government, last year when it came to inoculating the country, you were right there with us from the get-go.
As church leaders, your voices matter and you had already used those voices at every stage of the pandemic by helping your congregations through lock-down, and encouraging people to stick with the restrictions. The same zeal was then applied by all Christians denominations to help propel our vaccination roll out forward - offering up churches and cathedrals as vaccination centres, playing a pivotal role in our community champions programme, and working with communities to persuade people with reservations to go and get the jab.
Fear and uncertainly are easier to foster than trust and confidence, and inaction is easier to encourage than action, but your credible voices showed time and time again that you were capable of helping people see the common good.
On a personal level, your collective efforts along with representatives of all the faith groups of this country, was one of the reasons I was enormously proud and humbled to be asked by the Prime Minister to serve as his Faith Minister. And in that capacity, I will be your torchbearer in government, recognising the challenges you all face, and championing your work and the inexhaustible attitude you all showed throughout this most turbulent period in our history.
We want faith-based organisations to be among the centrepieces of our recovery from this pandemic in the years ahead. But we recognise that will only be possible if we as a government deliver what we are calling a Faith New Deal. A deal to reset how the public sector engages with our faith organisations. The pandemic gave us a daily demonstration of what an effective relationship can achieve and as we look to the year ahead we collectively have a real opportunity to take that momentum forward and build on it. Because it is not an overstatement to say that faith leaders are among the people in this country that understand individual communities best and we want councils to be able to properly harness that understanding and deploy it to help tackle local issues or come up with tailored solutions to problems in local areas. This has to go beyond mere tokenism. Through the Faith New Deal pilots, we will be backing a number of projects with investment that will help blaze a trail for how the public sector and faith groups can work together towards specific goals.
Thank you for answering the call and being a credit to both your faith and your country. I am looking forward to working with you all in the months ahead to deepen the relationship between the public sector and our faith institutions.”
The Minister also confirmed that the outcome of the New Faith Deal will be announced in the coming weeks.
Stephen Timms MP brought the following message of encouragement from the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer:
“I wish to send my sincere thanks to you as church leaders. Churches have worked tirelessly over the last two years, supporting the most vulnerable members of our communities. I know from my own constituency, and from colleagues in Parliament from around the country, that thousands of individuals and families would not have got by without the deep care and practical support of local congregations. When people needed food, you were there for them. When people were lonely, you supported them. When people mourned the loss of loved ones, you grieved with them. When people required vaccinations, you enabled them to receive their jab, and saved lives. On behalf all of us in the Labour Party, thank you for being such good neighbours throughout this period.
Having played a vital role in our response to the crisis, we know your services and support will be essential to our national recovery. The willingness of the mainline denominations to work together as part of the ChurchWorks Commission for Covid Recovery is a further sign of the strategic role that churches play in our national life, and the commitment of churches in our local communities.
The best still lies ahead for this country. I believe that we have a chance to create a new Britain, where everyone experiences the security, prosperity and respect they deserve; where every family can flourish and thrive; and where everyone can make a positive contribution to the future of their community and our country. Making this happen will require every part of society to work together, and I welcome your commitment as Church leaders to do just that.”
In autumn last year, the commissioners met to identify the core groups most affected by the pandemic and to discuss what the church could do going forward. Mental health and social isolation were core areas they identified, with a particular emphasis on interventions that considered children, young people and people of colour – groups which research showed were disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic.
The January summit’s purpose was for the church and policymakers to come together to share ideas and consider what collaboration could look like going forward.
To find out more please contact Claire Fenner Crawley (ChurchWorks Manager) on firstname.lastname@example.org