The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Faith Communities Make Society More Civil

18th November 2013

Zaki Cooper highlights the importance of faith to communities across the UK

With the celebration of Inter Faith Week and Mitzvah Day this week, faith communities will again have the opportunity to show us that they are the architects and builders of civil society. This is the network of charities, voluntary and community groups, which this government has termed “the Big Society.” The report “Holistic Mission”, published by ResPublica in July, showed that the Church of England is a bountiful source of volunteering, charitable giving and civic activism. Indeed, by way of example, 90% of Church of England attendees undertake some kind of voluntary activity, compared with 54% for the population as a whole.

The Church’s “social capital” is replicated across the UK’s diverse faith communities. The 2011 census results showed that the UK’s minority faith groups now account for 8.4% of the population, an increase from 5.8% from ten years earlier (the largest of these groups is the Muslim community at 2.7 million). One of the greatest living sociologists, Robert Putnam, has documented these trends for America in his book “American Grace.” Religious people are more likely to engage in a range of altruistic activities, whether volunteering, giving money to charity, donating blood, visiting the sick or helping someone find a job. They are also likely to be active citizens, as members and often leaders of community organisations.

The story in the UK would appear to be similar, based on further research carried out by Putnam. This is also corroborated by substantial other evidence, both from independent sources and from the communities themselves.

The faith communities, and not just the Church, are wellsprings of social activity. From the large minority groups, such as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews to the smaller communities of Zoroastrians, Jains and Bahais, social activism is alive and well. There are thought to be a total of 30,000 faith-based charities in UK.

To take an example, the Sikh community, numbering an estimated 423,000, offers active proof of this. There are over 200 Gurdwaras or Temples, which play a central role in community life, many equipped with their own community kitchens. As an example, one busy Gurdwara in Hounslow, West London, attracts 500 visitors on a weekday and up to 2,000 people on a typical Sunday. It acts as the “hub” of community life, and can often host or catalyse youth activity, visits to the sick and elderly and other community activity.

The slightly larger Hindu community in the UK of 817,000 people also places community at its heart, partly through its Temples. Just last month the Hindu Forum of Britain, with more than 350 member organisations from around the country, released a study showing £5.4m of social value for Britain as a result of its activities in 2011.

The Jewish community (numbering 263,000 according to the census) is longer established in the UK than other minority faith communities, having resettled here in the mid-seventeenth century. Accordingly it has a well-engrained community welfare system with big charities such as Jewish Care and Norwood. British Jewish communal and civil society organisations have been providing services to Jews and the wider public for hundreds of years. They function in every area of civil society – from education to elderly and disability care, through to religious institutions and university campuses. Many of its large charities rely on volunteers – for instance, Jewish Care has approximately 3,000 unpaid helpers. The community has recently unveiled its first community centre, JW3, a flagship project, which it is hoped acts as a focal point for community life.

One of the exciting projects which has grown out of the Jewish community but been embraced by other communities has been Mitzvah Day. First introduced in 2007, it encourages people to do a good deed, such as helping the deprived, sick and elderly. This year 25,000 participants from almost 400 organisations are expected to take part this Sunday. The events of the day will serve as a reminder as a capacity of faith groups to carry out social action. They are at the heart of giving, whether through time or money; without them, our “Big Society” would be a “smaller” place.

Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews @zakicooper.


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