Can local religion revive local communities?

Local Church Local CommunityToday’s guest writer is Dr Chris Baker. He is Director of Research at the William Temple Foundation, an independent faith-based research institution working to advance the vision of William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44) in an ongoing search for a just and inclusive society. Tweet @DrChrisRBaker or @WTempleFdn


On New Year’s Eve, Radio 4’s Today programme featured a debate on the power of leadership to change entrenched thinking.  New CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins, argued that leadership offers an alternative vision. Leadership works against a fatalistic sense that nothing can or should ever change. Jenkins claimed that only strong leadership could turn around the deep-seated culture of political and economic short-termism created by the financial crash.

Interviewed on the programme, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby supported this vision, stating that the Church of England was at its most effective when it had strong, creative leadership from local vicars. Unfortunately, he did not expand on what effective, local leadership might look like. Neither was there any mention of the role of laypeople in this regard. Yet the discussion highlights vital questions in the context of a much debased and cynical debate on localism. What does effective religious leadership look like at the local level? Is it simply about providing goods and minimising the impact of public service cuts? Is it simply a matter of church growth? Or can we aspire to a genuinely empowered form of localism that works to provide material goods as well as non-material ones (e.g. forgiveness, compassion, altruism)?

We can answer these questions by looking at examples of religious leadership with fresh and critical eyes, and seeing what they produce in terms of real political leverage. I refer for example, to the recent volume Working Faith – Faith-based organisations and urban social justice, edited not by theologians but human geographers, which looks at examples of innovative local faith-based leadership and community empowerment. These include drug addiction rehabilitation, national campaigns against poverty and debt, place making and community resilience, employment mentoring and social enterprise training for NEETS, community health care and mental health support, and so on.

Secular voices from the left are also discussing empowered localism, abandoning socialist purity and rediscovering ideals of devolution and enterprise to describe what they call ‘progressive localism’. It is not  progressive in the sense of being liberal or elitist, but in the sense of being outward looking; i.e. engaging creatively with other local institutions, networks or individuals, across religious and ideological divides, to ‘do something about something’ for the community as a whole. This will not necessarily be a smooth and consensual process, and the right to agree to disagree whilst still working for a common outcome is essential. But progressive localism is a call for a more mature kind of politics and flexible but visionary leadership.

Finally, we can argue that the church has a pivotal role to play in a genuinely revitalised public space. Some suggest that this local leadership can only come about through disestablishment — freeing up the local church to be truly local. Yet what is needed is not an either/or vision of the Church of England, but one that is both/and; a hybrid model of church which creatively fuses local, outward-focussed practice with institutional wisdom, resources and political capital. The church is uniquely placed for local political leadership because it is trans-local. It is still directly engaged in the lives and fortunes of local communities but also has the political clout to relay that experience to a wider audience. The church needs to focus on and celebrate what it is already doing well, but it also needs to learn from, and work in partnership with others to explore pragmatic, but also ethical and transformative solutions to entrenched structural problems. In other words, the church could be shaping and showing what progressive localism looks like in practice.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Church, Faith in society, Social action

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7 replies

  1. I would welcome a little more input on how this might look in specifically rural contexts, with the specific issues & limitations facing rural communities: decreasing service provision, funding imbalances, considerable rural poverty but thinly spread and hard to measure on any current IMD scales, housing provision & costs.
    I work for the Arthur Rank Centre ( the ecumenical training, resourcing, networking & advocacy hub.

    • Thanks Simon – I think ‘the rural’ is a gap in the market in terms of writing up and research, although my colleague John Reader at the William Temple Foundation has written extensively on this on his various blogs and indeed in his books Local Theology (1994) and his book Blurred Encounters (1995). John is also involved in the Christian Rural Environmental Studies course based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon which will be looking at some of these issues.

      The Foundation also did some research on rural communities in the North East which looked at how churches might deploy their physical and human resources to join up other social actors in the area and provide a more coherent response to economic and social regeneration. It was an attempt to transplant some successful urban models into a rural context. The report is still on our website

      An exciting new article by Andrew Williams entitled Neoliberalism, Big Society and Progressive Localism at Exeter University describes this in relation to the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) as an example of a not-for-profit community energy co-operative owned and run by its members and formed as an initiative under Neighbourhood Planning legislation. I will contact John and Andrew and ask them to get in touch with you.

      I think that what ‘progressive localism’ is doing is trying to give a strategic and austerity-welfare spin on what is already happening to some extent. So its perhaps more a case of re-presenting work that is already underway in a new and more inclusive but also more political way.

      I hope this info helps.

      Thanks again for your interest in this blog.

      • Hi Simon

        Rural churches do face certain challenges in taking a lead in helping communities ‘get by’ in times of austerity localism. By progressive localism, we argue the current political reforms are creating cracks which local communities and individuals can exploit to pursue more socially and environmentally just pathways. The argument was first made by David Featherstone and co, but we have developed the idea in our latest paper. I have sent you an early draft of the paper which might be useful. It goes through a number of examples of how local councils and local communities, despite restricted powers, are subverting the intended form of localism exhorted by the government. For instance, WREN was set up before the latest roll-out of localism (Neighbourhood plans and community right to buy) and has been supported by the green vision of Cornwall Council. Whilst the Neighbourhood planning powers have led to very little is practice, community-led visions for self-sufficient renewable energy have persevered to deliver the first fruits of an alternative economy that: takes on the big six profiteering energy companies; reduces energy costs; tackles rural fuel poverty (particularly those ‘off grid’); generates revenue for community projects; and lastly, adapts to the challenges of climate change. Obviously not all communities have the resource capacity to develop such a scheme but by its existence WREN provides a concrete example of how we can do energy and community differently.

        In terms of rural welfare and poverty, there is growing evidence coming from urban areas where care and political protest is being combined. We discuss how Foodbanks are starting to hold poverty hearings where people share stories of struggle and invite MPs to listen to the realities of life. In doing so, it politicises issues of food poverty (as we have seen in the last few months) but also these public spaces galvanise the spiritual capital of citizens – the sense of hope that can cut through the disempowerment and isolation that austerity breeds. In the South-West region, foodbanks are playing a important part in helping challenge the cultural denial of poverty in the rural idyll. More to follow.



      • Hi Chris, thanks for this.
        You may not be surprised to discover that I know John very well, and we have been corresponding & even working together over the past few years – especially when he still in Worcestershire and then Rural Officer in Chester Diocese. He’s been in touch with already as a result of my comments here and sharing the blog on FB. I’m familiar, too, with the Glendale Alive project & report … and we’ve been involved (as the Arthur Rank Centre) more recently with newer Churches Together initiatives in Glendale.
        I would be really happy to hear about WREN, not least of which I have a good friend who was vicar in Wadebridge for many years! But it would be good to get this as an accessible rural case study.
        My major concern is that a clear understanding is created and included of the overall situation facing many rural communities that come from a combination of circumstances that on their own may not be that different to some urban & even inner-city situations … but which together produce a unique (if not “perfect”) storm of difficulty and expectation. This is compounded by the continuing widespread attitude within the rural church and towards the rural church (particularly by regional & national church leadership) that maintains the fiction of “Christendom in the shires”.
        As you rightly point out, rural *does* represent a gap in the published/public face of research & writing. So I merely wanted to highlight this 🙂
        All the best, Simon

  2. Further to my earlier reply to Chris … now to Andy!
    Thanks for the info … I’m especially interested in your comments on (rural) foodbanks in the SW. It would be very helpful to add to a dual case study on these we’ve just published on the ARC website (see But the rest of what to mention will be valuable.
    Just one question … where have you sent the draft of your paper for me?

  3. Thanks Shannan – very pleased you enjoyed the article – all best wishes – Chris


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