Lord Bourne: Cathedrals can help with homelessness

Minister for faith Lord Bourne is visiting all of England's 42 Anglican cathedrals in one year. Now more than halfway through, he learns how cathedrals engage with their local communities

When I took up my role as minister for faith, I set myself the ambitious target of visiting all of England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals in one year, to better understand the role they play in communities throughout the country.

I’m now more than three quarters through and the end is rather sadly in sight. I’ll be finishing my tour in Canterbury on September 22. And what a fantastic opportunity it has been to see the work of England’s centres of Christian worship first-hand.

I’ve been deeply impressed with what I’ve seen: remarkable architecture, of course, but also cathedrals as renewed focal points for their communities and champions of education, economic growth and regeneration.

Homelessness could happen to any of us. It happens to too many of us

Almost uniformly, I’ve heard how  cathedrals are working to engage with their wider communities, demystifying the cathedral and encouraging people to cross the threshold. Cathedrals want to be focal points for their communities in the modern world for young and old, Christian or otherwise. Part of this is strengthening the role of faith at the heart of the diverse communities they serve and encouraging people from across all social divides to engage in dialogue with one another.

In my discussions with the deans and volunteers in cathedrals from Bradford to Winchester, tackling homelessness and rough sleeping has come up time and time again. The church has a proud history of ‘getting involved’. National housing charity Shelter, for example, evolved in the 1960s from the pioneering work started by London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields and today tackling homelessness remains at the heart of Christian concern.

British Aisles: Cathedrals including Wells are bolstering their communities

People end up homeless for many reasons, but all too often it’s because a single problem has spiralled out of control. It might be a sudden bout of ill health that quickly escalates from being unable to work, to struggling to pay the bills, to being unable to pay the rent or mortgage to finding yourself out on the street.

Today the approach our cathedrals are taking to help individuals and families is so much more than the popular impression of Christian duty with the offering of a hot meal and a safe place to stay, vital though these kind and practical responses are.

Exeter cathedral demonstrates the power of interfaith collaboration, working with their local Mosque to support a wide range of charitable organisations

I’ll shortly be visiting Sheffield to see the great work of the Archer Project. Based in the cathedral itself, the scheme helps clients with their immediate needs and also supports them to move on from homelessness, offering tailored support and signposting to all available services. They also organise activity programmes to help people to take control of their lives by learning new skills that can boost confidence and increase employability.

In the South West, Exeter Cathedral – often in partnership with their local mosque – supports a wide range of charitable organisations in a variety of ways including a weekly project reaching out to the homeless and vulnerably housed of the city. Their weekly evening meals provide a valuable opportunity to build relationships but also to direct people to the support and prevention services provided by the St Petrock’s Centre based in the cathedral grounds. Exeter also demonstrates the power of interfaith collaboration and I have taken the opportunity to observe the work of other faiths and places of worship in the community on my tour.

As well as the expertise and excellence of the services provided by our cathedrals, their clergy and their staff, I’ve also been deeply impressed by the compassion shown by their congregations. From the grounds of Gloucester to the cloisters of Canterbury, hundreds of people at various points of the year together with support from homeless charities bed down for a night to raise money and awareness of those sleeping rough on our streets.

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Homelessness could happen to any of us. It happens to too many of us. And that’s why we in government are trying a new approach, aiming to intervene early enough to stop a personal problem becoming a homelessness crisis.

It’s why we are investing £550m to 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. We’re determined to help these individuals and families get their lives back on track. It’s why we backed and are now implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act, which will make sure individuals and families get the help they need earlier, stopping them becoming homeless in the first place.

Our cathedrals are among the most well-recognised and loved buildings of our national heritage, but they are also crucial to the present and future of local communities.

They have a central role to play in addressing the issues that matter most to local people and on my remaining visits, I will continue to champion their efforts to raise awareness of pressing social issues and in delivering real action on the ground.

Lord Nick Bourne is a Conservative peer and minister for faith | @lordnickbourne