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It is a given that British society is changing fast: we are far more diverse than previous decades. We are becoming a more fractured society, more discontented with politics in general, and more prone to factional interests and divisive politics. Truth is becoming a contested commodity.

Religions embrace sets of beliefs and coalescing practices, and so have long track records of thought and experience as to how people and groups should act, and what justice, peace and society should look like. Such traditions, without being necessarily determinative, can be a rich repository to offer insight into public debate on contemporary issues. When the Archbishop of Canterbury criticises Wonga, he does so reaching back into a long, evolving tradition of ethics on the charging of interest that goes back not only to the pivotal Second Lateran Council of 1139 (for those interested in the scholastic tradition on usury), but to origins many centuries earlier.

The role of religion in promoting social cohesion is a critical one. That’s not based upon some bland tolerance, a pact not to disagree over areas of difference, rather a vehicle that helps people and communities navigate the vital and tricky issues of identity and belonging in community. Religious organisations can help us attain a cohesion based on attending to difference whilst simultaneously holding to other commitments such as the value of life and creation: we’ve being wrestling with these matters for many centuries, though admittedly sometimes more successfully than at others.

Religion is a powerful force for binding people together. For many, religious organisations are far more inclusive (and free) than other social opportunities easily available to them through work, family, neighbourhood, or shared interests. If you want to find a striking example of diversity in Britain, try visiting your local mosque or church. Congregations often embrace a greater range of ages, social classes, and ethnicities. That includes, in my own experience, not infrequently those that are often marginalised and excluded, and (safely) includes the ex-offender, the autistic, those with impairments, and the mentally frail, to name but a few.

The response to the destruction of Grenfell Tower illustrates the positive ways in which religious organisations not only contribute to – but underpin – cohesion in society. My experience as part of the faith community’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire bears this out. Many community organisations acted as focal points for local volunteers to act, faith-based ones playing a significant role. Their role, both in terms of offering support from its own volunteer base, or as a catalyst for the wider community, was pivotal. The Muslim Aid report into the response to the Grenfell Tower fire stated: “A variety of Muslim and Christian organisations have played critical leadership roles in the Grenfell response, offering trusted, expert assistance to local communities. The extensive physical presence of faith organisations at the heart of the UK’s diverse communities needs to be properly recognised and harnessed as a vital element of contemporary emergency capacity.”

The faith-based organisations near Grenfell are not threatened by each other: it is perfectly possibly to have profound convictions without becoming exclusivist or denying the validity of others’ truths. Indeed, our local Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups are about to engage in a process of ‘scriptural reasoning’ in which we share different insights on texts that have parallels in each other’s Scriptures. In other words although religion can, like any cultural phenomenon, be manipulated for sectional interests, it need not be a contributor to conflict any more than does sport, music or fashion, but positively promote a deeper and richer dimension to society.

The mention of trust in the Muslim Aid report is vital here. In a community with little confidence in established authorities (for a variety of reasons), the faith-based organisations possessed a credibility that helped people donate and distribute money, care responsibly for distressed people, and not be suspected of seeking to make capital from the tragedy.

Many faith centres were assisted by a wide diversity of people of all faiths and none. On the very first day of the fire I was greeted at the church by several local Muslim representatives, offering not only prayer mats and clothes (which we gladly accepted), but graciously inviting me to speak at the Iftar, the ceremony to mark the end of the day’s fast during Ramadan, at the mosque on the Friday.

It wasn’t simply a matter of a fantastic community spirit being stirred by an appalling tragedy on our doorstep, it was also due to the social and organisational channels that the faith community helped to provide. Religious organisations provide not only social glue but a significant resource for communities, especially those economically ‘deprived’ (yet rich in other ways, of course) and where there is a relative paucity of other institutions and networks compared to other, more ‘affluent’ areas.

The Methodist Church near Grenfell, for its part, played a significant role in the community during the 1960s following the Notting Hill riots, pioneering multiracial church work, campaigning on housing issues (pioneering creative housing solutions including the Notting Hill Housing Trust and the charity Shelter), and establishing many other projects.

That disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire stir up a greater sense of togetherness and community is hardly surprising. Yet neither do they have to be confined to the short-term. Some years ago, when I was a minister in north London, a Bravanese Somali education centre was burned down in a racist attack. A few days later, a peaceful march of Muslims, Christians and Jews took place, and some lasting relationships were forged between faith communities who hitherto had simply lacked the impetus to form a local partnership. Lay and ordained, orthodox and reformed, from those three faiths continued to meet, offer hospitality and study together. I was not surprised to find that local rabbi coming to the church after the Grenfell Tower fire, accompanied by local Jewish leaders.

One factor contributing to religion’s role in enhancing both social cohesion and social capital is that of their reach: many are global movements with followers inhabiting diverse countries, careers and languages. As such, local faith-based organisations such as churches and mosques are connected to a global network that shares information, learning, concerns and practical assistance. Horizons extend far beyond the local community, and one of the key roles of faith leaders is to act as the interface between the local and the wider world, sharing such insights. All of which militates against insularity. Indeed, the networking that is essential to any faithbased organisation means that minority voices that otherwise would not attract the attention of the world’s media can be heard: religious congregations can be remarkably well-informed about the experiences of those whose lives are at considerable variance from their own.

Religious faith may for many be regarded as a private matter; yet for its practitioners (a word I prefer to ‘believers’) it has wide social implications. In the current political and social climate, we may find such actions and organisations indispensable.

Revd Mike Long is Superintendent minister of the Notting Hill Methodist Circuit. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Staying Faithful?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.