How Christian and other faith communities are rebuilding trust in times of crisis

Our recent report, 'Trust in Crisis: the emergence of the quiet citizen', from the Woolf Institute found that local communities – especially faith and other minority groups – are increasingly important at times of crisis.

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The research project, which started in 2015, analysed how people and communities across four European cities – London, Rome, Paris, and Berlin – reacted when confronted by the crises which have tested trust in state institutions. The often overlapping economic, social, and political difficulties experienced since the financial crash of 2008 have resulted in local-level challenges driven in particular by austerity measures, growing insecurity, the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees, and political instability.

One of our key conclusions is that the social and economic challenges arising out of these crises are breeding a new form of 'quiet citizenship', through which individuals contribute to society at a local level often across political, religious, and ethnic divides, without recognition or reward, to change the state of public affairs. Where this is particularly noticeable is among faith communities.

As we indicated in our report: 'Religion and religious groups are transforming in these crisis scenarios by becoming more energetic and politicised. In some grassroots initiatives, values and faith can transcend specific beliefs and histories by collectively addressing current problems to generate a different future and shape society.'

Volunteers are reinvigorating church communities in places like Berlin which had previously struggled to attract support among a largely agnostic population. The refugee situation illustrated the importance of organised religion for social work. Similar trends appear in Rome and Paris where church resources can be found used for sheltering refugees, drawing on help across community and faith lines from the local area. In London, austerity has also produced new forms of interfaith collaboration through social action that provides health and social care services, and various faith groups have been able to use these developments to expand involvement.

The YouGov online study that complemented our report conducted on a sample of 1637 British adults, found that more than half of the respondents saw within their own communities the strength to offer a similar degree of help and support as the Government, and in some cases to exceed this.

A significant percentage of respondents stated that local community was something that they were more attached to (28 per cent) than the UK (24 per cent). Religious minorities were more likely to express a strong connection to their local community and less likely to state a strong connection to their country. Moreover, women scored more highly in this question (32 per cent) than did men (24 per cent).

The survey also found that since the 2008 financial crisis, 68 per cent of people in the UK have volunteered, or donated money and resources, filling the void left by austerity at the local level. Near on half (47 per cent) of those people who had been involved in charitable and/or community work stated that this was as a consequence of a sense of duty.

While grassroots responses and their positive impact could be exploited to justify further cuts to social services by central governments, the report instead suggests more investment by central government at local and regional levels to channel precious local initiatives more efficiently: 'Local organisations in all four sites repeatedly stressed the need for more resources and support from the government. A strengthening of local resources will enable local governments and volunteer organisations to address new challenges.'

In summary, Trust in Crisis found that local Christian, Jewish, Muslim and multi-faith initiatives – born of particular challenges related notably to austerity – based on volunteer time and often on faith community resources such as Church, Mosque and Synagogue space, networks and reach are significant.

Faith communities are the root of a new kind of citizenship crafted through trust and built in times of crisis that can cross social boundaries. Such initiatives help to energise and politicise the notion of citizenship by conducting quiet yet remarkable work that counters the shrill voices of exclusivist nationalism. As such we strongly recommend greater appreciation of local faith groups as sources of trust and social cohesion for people facing social and economic challenges.

WATCH: The Woolf Institute research team that worked on the new Trust in Crisis report discuss their key finding, that local communities – especially faith and other minority groups – are increasingly important at times of crisis. 

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock is Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute and Research Associate at St Edmund's College, the University of Cambridge and Dr Sami Everett is Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute and Research Associate at St Edmund's College, the University of Cambridge. They are currently working on a manuscript that will add further depth and texture to the 'Trust in Crisis' report. The executive summary is here. Follow on Twitter @Woolf_Institute@SamiEverett and @kessler_ed .