The “last line of defence” against the cost of living crisis is under threat as churches and other community hubs could be forced to close their doors because of spiralling bills and shrinking donations, two UK elder statesmen have said.
Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and ex-archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams say: “The UK’s faith and voluntary sectors find themselves as precarious as the people they are helping.”
In a foreword to a report published on Monday by the Christian thinktank Theos, the pair write: “Compassion, of course, is not running out but cash is. Donors who have had a little and have generously given to those who have nothing are now finding themselves unable to give at all, and some of those who have donated to food banks are now themselves relying on them.
“Even churches, which have selflessly offered their heated halls to help vulnerable people stay warm, know they will struggle to pay their own fuel bills …
“The shocking reality is that this winter, we are likely to see charities being forced to stop feeding the hungry so they can help the starving, cut back on support to the poorly housed so they can focus on the fast-rising numbers of homeless, and give up on helping the down-at-heel because their priority has to be the destitute.”
Theos’s report, “A torn safety net: how the cost of living crisis threatens its own last line of defence,” says churches and other community institutions play a vital role in offering support to millions of people.
But they are themselves facing a “perfect storm”, according to Hannah Rich, the report’s author. “As the economy has spiralled, we have seen these anchor institutions themselves become less secure. Soaring energy costs threaten the ability to run vital community spaces. At the same time, volunteer capacity is stretched thin and financial donations are drying up.”
Dozens of community figures, mainly in Wolverhampton, Glasgow, Cornwall and London, were interviewed for the report.
A church leader in Wolverhampton said: “We’ve seen a lot of longstanding volunteers step back … Even before the demand for what we do went up, more people have just decided not to take stuff back up post-Covid. How we resource our community outreach from a human perspective will be a lot more challenging.”
A food bank coordinator in Glasgow said: “There is an increase in demand for food, obviously, but trying to find a way to collect it and get it to people is difficult when volunteers are stretched.”
A large mosque in Birmingham reported that it was considering cutting back on community activity significantly after being told its energy bills could quadruple from £60,000 to £250,000 a year.
The report concludes: “There is a risk that churches and other faith groups will close, not because of falling attendance or religious affiliation, but because they cannot afford to keep the lights on.”
Without action to address rising bills, the financial sustainability of buildings such as churches will be threatened, according to the report. The closure of community hubs such as village halls, scout huts, pubs, would leave “economic and social scars on the community”.
Among the report’s recommendations are tax breaks for volunteering, an increase in the rate of Gift Aid on charitable donations, and a cap on energy prices on community spaces.
“The need has got so much greater”
The Rev Heston Groenewald broke off from scrubbing down an oven after a busy lunchtime at his church’s pay-what-you-can cafe to say that the challenges facing All Hallows in Leeds were both terrifying and beautiful.
The Anglican church’s twice-weekly Rainbow cafe uses waste food to create lunches for about 70 people. Another 100 households are helped by its food sharing service – usually called a food bank, but Groenewald prefers a more dignified term.
People from the inner-city, multicultural, multi-faith community also come to the church for drop-in sessions, live music, mental health support, and financial advice. Those with specific problems, such as housing, are directed by volunteers to the relevant official bodies and helped with paperwork.
Groenewald plans to offer his building as much as possible over the winter as a welcoming warm space, liaising with the nearby mosque and Hindu temple to ensure one of them is open every day.
But he is worried about the rising costs of providing all this. The church spends about £500 a week on fresh fruit and vegetables for the cafe and food bank, a sum that has almost doubled with rising prices. It relies on donations and a grant from the local council to pay the bill.
All Hallows’ energy bills are fixed for now, but that will come to end this winter. The prospect of soaring bills is terrifying, he says. “We’re trying to plan for a future that is going to get more and more difficult. Meanwhile, the need has got so much greater.”
But, he adds, there is also something rather beautiful happening. Despite the financial pressures that also bear down on donors and volunteers, “at the grassroots, there is incredible kindness and generosity. We’ll find a way through this. There is so much to hope for.”