Last month, a group of University of Auckland researchers released a report on social cohesion in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A media release accompanying the report stated that social cohesion is under threat in this country.
“[The] challenge of social cohesion is becoming increasingly critical, and more research and policy development is needed to help sustain it,” the statement noted.
Society has changed rapidly, greater ethnic diversity in cities and elsewhere is a reality, and “the resolution of what it means to be a ‘Kiwi’ is still evolving”.
“Societies only function well when they exhibit a level of cohesiveness that allows them to work for the mutual benefit of all their diverse members, despite differing world views, identities, and values. Societal well-being therefore depends on maintaining social cohesion,” the statement added.
A robust media and better democratic processes that encourage informed debate were among the ways suggested for maintaining or enhancing social cohesion.
“We need to understand social cohesion through a very Aotearoa lens, and recognise [that] our social cohesion needs will be different from any other country,” the statement added, with particular reference to Te Tiriti O Waitangi.
There will likely be differences with other nations, but there will also be similarities. The report did not touch on faith or religious affiliation overmuch as a factor in social cohesion.
In fact, the report mentioned “faith” once, and “religion” six times, but almost always in the context of looking at the past. However, while the 2018 census showed an increasing percentage of respondents saying that they had “no religion”, it also showed that a significant proportion of the population still states they have a religious affiliation. Christians made up 37 per cent of a population of 4.7million.
That is not an insignificant statistic, in its own right, and also in terms of consequences for social cohesion. In 2014, the UK Catholic Weekly The Tablet noted a study by the Social Integration Commission, which showed that churches are the most successful places in Britain to meet a wide variety of people.
“It shows that attending a church gives the best chance of interacting with others across lines of age, income and ethnicity. The research found that while sporting events are the best places to bring people together across the age groups, churches were next best,” The Tablet article stated.
Also from Britain, a 2020 paper by the Theos Think Tank pointed to research that showed that “people with a religious affiliation are more active citizens than those without”.
Many of the participants in the Theos study had religious motives for civic and community engagement. “Particularly common themes were the need to follow Christ’s example, the call to be ‘salt and light’ in the community, bringing the marginalised into the centre, building the ‘Kingdom of God’, and love of neighbour,” the paper noted.
“First, at their best and in contrast to much of cohesion policy which has been driven forward in crisis, churches are emblematic of an approach that views cohesion as a desirable outcome in its own right,” the paper added.
“They (churches) are embedded in their local communities, and [are] often working concertedly under the radar to bolster the strength of our collective relationships. Therefore, policymakers should ensure that they are working with churches wherever possible and appropriate, as a practical step towards a less crisis-driven approach to cohesion.”
It is to be hoped that, while the work of churches in the community in this country frequently flies under the radar too, those responsible for policy-making and research in this area will work with churches in this country too, for the good of all.
As the Theos paper noted, churches are generally good at listening to what communities need, tailoring responses to local circumstances, and prioritising what the community and congregation will support on a sustainable basis.