More than 4,000 Church of England parishes are estimated to have stepped up support to the wider community during the coronavirus pandemic.
From listening services to food deliveries, a new report by the Church of England and Church Urban Fund, shows the creative range of ways churches have helped their local communities.
Overall, 37% of churches reported that they were providing more support to their communities with this figure rising to 41% in rural areas.
Church volunteers have carried out a range of tasks from food deliveries to shopping, dog walking and collection of prescriptions since the first lockdown, according to the report. Gardening projects, 'phone buddies', job-hunting support, and helping people to get online were among a series of innovative services provided by churches for people suffering from the social and economic effects of the pandemic.
Jessamin Birdsall, head of research and evaluation at Church Urban Fund, spoke to Premier about the report: "So the number of churches that responded saying they're providing more support now is actually higher in rural areas. And it was for the sample as a whole. And so that also includes churches, partnering with village shops in order to set up voucher schemes after bus services were shut down so that people could access goods more easily, and a range of other innovative approaches."
Food provision and pastoral support were by far the biggest area of support provided by churches, with nearly 80% of churches involved in running or supporting a food bank or other similar services such as food clubs and hot meals. Many opened food banks for the first time in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Birdsall added that more than a quarter of churches have reported that they were working collaboratively with local authorities on projects such as emergency food provision.
"I think that's another key insight from this research that 28% of churches are now working more closely with local authorities, and 27% are working more closely with other charities. And so to me that's a really positive indication of churches being committed to the common good. And also of local authorities increasingly recognizing that churches are a key player and a trusted partner in supporting communities. And so it'll be really interesting to see how that evolves as we're now moving out of the pandemic and how churches build on some of those new relationships that have been formed," she added.
Church leaders told the survey that social problems such as isolation, loneliness and mental health difficulties, food poverty, unemployment and debt have become much more widespread in their communities as a result of the pandemic, particularly in the most deprived areas.
In many cases Church buildings became symbols of hope, the report noted and were adorned with flags, posters and artwork as a "form of visual outreach and encouragement" to local communities.
However, for some churches there have been significant challenges during the pandemic.
"Some churches have more financial resources than others, some have bigger staff, and volunteer teams. And so those those kind of factors, definitely, you know, shape the degree to which churches are able to be involved in their communities and participate in these other partnership activities. But we have seen that churches of all sizes are demonstrating investment, regardless of the kinds of resources they have available. But clergy were open about the fact that, you know, for some of them, who rely on the rental income of their buildings, that has been really hard hit during the pandemic, so they just have less financial resources. Churches who have an older age profile of volunteers have also found that to be a struggle, as many of their volunteers have had to shield during the pandemic," Birdsall told Premier.
The Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman, writing in a foreword to the report, said: "The unequal impact of the pandemic has made us more acutely aware of poverty in our midst, even in wealthier parts of the country. Tackling poverty is a fundamental part of the Church's mission. Despite the enormous challenges, many churches are living out their Christian faith by doing more to support their local community, offering help, advice and care for the most vulnerable."