Last Thursday over a hundred and fifty young people from the four corners of Britain met in Sheffield. Many of them got up at 4am to be there to meet 33 bishops and 2 archbishops. I was asked to go to represent Bishop John (Ripon and Leeds) and it was an inspiring event. The day was organized by the Church Army to highlight the appalling statistics which show that less then 7% of the Church of England is now aged 18 - 35. The event was undoubtedly evangelical in inspiration but there were young people from all sorts of Christian backgrounds and none. There were three young people representing our diocese from St Aidan's School in Harrogate and Graham Richards, our archdeaconry Adviser in Children's and Young People's work, was there. We met at the Philadelphia Campus of St Thomas Crooke's Church.
It is unusual for 33 bishops all to give up a day to listen to one group of people. They had all been asked to adopt an attentive attitude and they really entered into the spirit of it! I have never seen such quiet bishops! (Someone did tweet that the bishop in his group had fallen asleep at one point, but all the bishops I saw were listening hard!)
As we talked in groups, I was very struck by the fact that there were not huge gaps between the generations on theological points or spiritual fervour, although there was a great range of theological perspective represented. In our group, we really got going when one of the bishops said that lives changed in some way by Christ was what sharing our faith was all about. However, there were stark differences, too. Young people do not communicate in the same ways as older people and they value sincerity of relationship, lack of stuffiness and freedom to interact personally, verbally, electronically and structurally very highly indeed. There was also a sense that approaches to worship and relationship that are not overly intellectual are valued. Young peope said that they often lack resources in the church - they are not trusted in positions that influence church life, they are not trusted to handle budgets and there is a lack of committed, sustained adult leadership. I was very struck by the fact that, in this age group as it was represneted on the day there was a much better balance of male and female than is usual in church life.
I have not had time to digest all that I heard, but I think we were all impressed by the enthusiasm the young people had for their faith, the love and, indeed, respect they had for the church (while also criticizing it) and the pressure they are under as young Christians and leaders. It is very much harder to live as a Christian disciple today than it was when I was young.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York arrived hotfoot from a mission in Manchester. Rowan's message was that we should 'look for the church behind the church' (I think he meant historically!) and that church 'is not a lot of people with religious ideas but a lot of people who've had their lives turned upside down by Jesus Christ and are trying to make sense of it and don't necessarily find it easy to get along with one another.' Sentmou's message was that you can be a disciple of Christ as any age - 8 or 88 - and that we should expect God to speak through young people. He gave some lovely examples of God working through young people and the community trusting them - Samuel and Timothy from scripture - and then examples from his own life. 'Living church keeps you growing all your life and takes you out of your comfort zone!'
The most thought provoking idea I came away with was this - the Church of South India has decided that 35% of people on all boards and committees must be 35 or under and 35% of the budget must be spent on activities that support people 35 or under. Unless we support young people and listen to them and their knowledge of contemporary culture and how to speak of faith within it, we will increasdingly lose touch. On the other hand, there was strong affirmation from the young people for the wisdom of older Christians. But, over all, it seems that under 25's and over 55's are not talking to each other and there is a sense that older people in groups may appear not to be interested in speaking to young people and learning from their perspective. In the parish where I served as priest, we tried very hard to value all ages and had a good number of older folk with activities they enjoyed. But the leadership team realised that young people need special encouragement in the church and we pledged ourselves actively to favour ways of worshipping, working, communicating and socialising that would appeal to young families. It worked - the church grew and younger people joined. It isn't rocket science, but it takes courage!
The archbishops and all of us present signed a pledge during the closing act of worship to listen more to young people and to support them in their desire to live lives for Christ.
|Take a global gap year with the Church Army (see below)|
Can we work on a similar diocesan event to Regeneration to help us listen to our young people and to encourage them in their Christian witness and leadership among their peers?
For information about gap years with the Church Army (must be 18-25) phone 03001232113 or e mail firstname.lastname@example.org