The city of Hull, on the east coast of England, has an unlikely claim to fame. According to Richard Bentley, pastor of Bodmin Road Evangelical Church in the district of Bransholme, Hull has the worst church attendance in the United Kingdom. Still, such is the freefall in British Church membership in recent decades, by the time you read this, another city will have staked its claim.
Which is not to say Rev. Bentley has a lot of free time on his hands. Most of the week he is ministering to the 26,000 occupants of Britain's largest housing estate, where he and his colleagues run a plethora of social and community activities, from mothers and toddlers groups and after-school homework clubs to a refuge for Bosnian Muslims and literacy programs with Nottingham University.
Were proof needed of Archbishop William Temple's dictum that the church is "the only voluntary organization that exists solely for the benefit of nonmembers," then here it is in Bransholme.
"The services we provide to the community are used almost exclusively by people who do not come to our church," explains the minister. "We don't Bible-bash; we work where we think there is a need to be met."
And, unlike many other professionals working with some of the country's most deprived communities, the members of Bodmin Road Evangelical Church also live next door to them. "We live on the same housing estate. The teachers don't, the social workers don't, and the policy makers certainly don't," he says. "And because we live here, we know what the problems are."
Rev. Bentley is not alone. If the formal membership of the myriad British denominations is in decline, growing numbers of the remaining core are engaged in a nationwide tapestry of social altruism--from nurseries to youth clubs, hostels for the homeless to neighborhood renewal schemes and crime prevention. One estimate has the combined efforts of the churches energizing 130,000 different community projects.
And after years of disinterest--with just a touch of cynicism at the political influence of right-leaning Christian groups in the United States--British politicians are suddenly tripping each other up in the race to embrace faith-based communities.
"We welcome the contribution of churches and other faith-based organizations as partners of local and central government in community renewal," announced the Labour manifesto at the recent general election. Not to be outdone, William Hague's Conservatives promised to "end discrimination against faith-based community groups."
At a Faith in Politics conference organized by the Christian Socialist Movement, Prime Minister Tony Blair put his personal stamp on party policy. "Your role in the voluntary sector is legitimate and important," he told Christian social activists from across the country. "And where you have the desire and ability to play a greater role, with the support of your communities, we want to see you do so."
Significantly, he added, "We want you as partners, not substitutes," an attempt to allay fears that increasing the role of the voluntary sector in social provision is a cynical ruse to allow the state to retreat from traditional welfare obligations.
And if Blair is well-known as a devout high Anglican, he is not alone in government in seeking new partnerships with the faith communities. The day after hosting a meeting with Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University's volunteering guru, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown also sought out the churches--later announcing he would make it easier for them to access statutory funding for community services. His 450 million pounds (about $630 million U.S.) "Sure Start" program, launching in 250 areas next year, will provide drop-in centers, childcare and mobile health clinics for young children. While leaning on existing local authority providers, it will also seek out voluntary groups. Brown made it clear who he is thinking of: "It will be available to all groups who meet the criteria, including faith-based groups--mosques, synagogues, and churches--who every day can make such an important contribution to their local communities. …