The Anglican Diocese of Durham has launched a major initiative to support credit unions in its area.
The Bishop of Jarrow, the Right Revd Mark Bryant, has launched a project to recruit 1,000 people to credit unions across the diocese and engage congregations much more in supporting the organisations.
Bishop Mark was speaking at the Durham Diocesan Synod at Durham Johnston School on Saturday (9 November), where he signed up to become a member of the Prince Bishops Community Bank.
The new Bishop of Durham Elect, the Right Revd Paul Butler, currently Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, has pledged to put alleviating poverty at the heart of his ministry when he takes up the post next year. He has done much in support of credit unions in his current role and signed up to Durham County Credit Union on the day he was announced as the next Bishop of Durham.
Bishop Mark said: "We know that in many parts of our Diocese, life is really tough and unfair. We know, for example, that if you live in the centre of Stockton, you will die eighteen years before a woman living in the middle of Durham.
"We know we have parishes where more than 50% of the children are living in poverty and where nearly half the pensioners are living in poverty.
"Somebody was telling me the other day about how they regularly see going past their window families moving because they can no longer afford the rent on their houses and how it seems to take families almost a week to move because they have to move everything with a pushchair and dustbin bags. The person that was telling me about this said that it was just like pictures of refugees that we see on our television screens and this was happening in Hartlepool.
"There is a real imperative for us through our local churches to see how we can best serve the most vulnerable members of our community.
“The past year has been the rise of food banks right across our Diocese. It has been wonderful to see so many people supporting these projects and to see the extraordinary generosity of people when food bank members are collecting outside of supermarkets.
"We need to be clear, however, that, wonderful as these food banks are, it is extraordinary and simply scandalous that they are needed at all as especially as we are told that 33 per cent of us coming to food banks are coming simply because the benefit payment system has let them down. We need to be clear that food banks are not the final answer.
"Ways need to be found to work with people so that they can get back to the good bits of where they were before they hit the crisis which sent them to the food bank. People may need to be supported with debt advice or how to navigate the process of finding a job again
"In the past few months, Archbishop Justin has given a significant lead in this direction in all that he has had to say about credit unions. There are a number of credit unions in our own Diocese and it is good that there are already parishes engaging with their local credit unions, for example in the North Wearside team in Houghton le Spring and in Easington Colliery where the credit union comes weekly to the local lunch club.
"They are doing sterling work but a lack of resources means that they simply cannot do as much as they would like to do and it means that they are often not able to be in places where they are needed most.
"That is why in 2014 we are committing ourselves across the Diocese to recruit 1,000 more members for their local credit unions and to encourage members of congregations to offer volunteer support for these credit unions.
"In some of our parishes there will be people with the skills and expertise which are exactly those needed by credit unions as they seek to expand their influence and we will be rolling out a scheme early in 2014 to enable parishes to build links with their credit unions.
"I hope we should get to a situation whereby the question for church goers in the diocese will not be why should I join my credit union but rather why am I not joining it?"
Lesley Richardson, Manager of the Prince Bishops Community Bank, said: "It is exciting that the Church is joining up with the bank, it will give extra credibility to credit unions and community banks.
"This is about helping people to understand how to manage their money. It will help keep them away from the doorstep lenders and get them away from the payday lenders. Signing up 1,000 people to credit unions would be phenomenal."