Loneliness is identified by 76% of Anglican clergy as a significant or major problem in their local communities according to the 2017 Church in Action Report, published last week by Church Urban Fund and the Church of England. This represents an increase of 12 percentage points on the 2014 figure.
As the Jo Cox Commission has emphasised, loneliness affects young and old alike. The Church in Action survey shows that it also cuts across socio-economic divides. Whereas poor housing, unemployment, debt and food poverty are concentrated in the most deprived parishes, the prevalence of loneliness showed least variation between the most and least deprived communities, according to the clergy who live and work in them.
Describing the problem of loneliness, Jean Vanier writes:
‘to be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable’ … ‘Loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness is a feeling of not being part of anything, of being cut off.’ (Becoming Human, pp. 10, 33)
The Church in Action Report shows that churches are actively engaged in responding to loneliness: 94% of the churches surveyed are providing either organised activities (46%), signposting (22%), or informal help (27%) to alleviate it.
When it comes to addressing loneliness across the age spectrum, 69% of Anglican churches run a lunch club, coffee morning or other hospitality for older people, while 59% run toddler groups or playgroups, important sources of companionship for parents and children alike.
Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, part of CUF’s Together Network, is working alongside Ageing Better Middlesbrough (a 6 year Big Lottery funded project) to understand, encourage and resource the work churches do to alleviate loneliness amongst older people through a project called Faithfully Ageing Better. Development Worker Kate Wells describes the difference made by Welcome Break, the weekly drop-in at St Barnabas Church, Linthorpe:
“What seems to make the real difference to people is the regularity and reliability of the group, and the strong friendships that have been formed. There is also a sense of having a ‘place’ – some of the people who have come for a long time have started to help out, either formally by serving refreshments, or informally by being there and talking to and welcoming newer attendees.”
Churches’ long-term, committed presence in communities means they can help people get plugged in to the local networks, relationships, and opportunities to get involved in making a difference to others, that build a sense of belonging over time – an offering that is likely to grow in importance as the issue of loneliness rises up the public and policy agenda.
Read the full Church in Action Report here.