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Role-models and responsibility

17 August 2011

Church is one of few places where young people can learn leadership, says Chris Chivers

“CRIMINALITY, pure and simple,” the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Leader of the Opposition all said last week. Having acknowledged the anger that people have felt at the rioting in some of our cities, we now face the challenge to move beyond the rhetoric to see who is best-placed to reinvigorate the morals of our society.

This is a situation that politicians are finding hard to address. Their authority has been too compromised in recent years for them to convince us that they are best-placed to give

a lead. Their manipulation of the parliamentary expenses system to suit their self-interest and greed is too close for comfort to the opportunistic get-and-grab consumerism of the looters. Their collusion with media moguls, who preside over organisa­tions whose destructively depersonal­ising behaviour has shocked us all, only adds to the impression.

It is a murky culture that has tar-n­ished our perception of police authority, too, and confirmed our suspicions about those former icons of the Thatcherite and Blairite pro­jects — the bankers and financial whizz-kids. “They fleeced the nation, and we bailed them out. They’ve kept all their bonuses, while the rest of us are much poorer,” said one of the teenagers in my parish.

We discover what we really knew already, which is that our society is morally bankrupt. An editorial last week in the Murdoch tabloid The Times bemoaned our lack of spiritual leadership. A letter the next day wondered why we were not hearing from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Yet an email from another young member of my congregation pointed out an own-goal here: “If, this morn­ing, The Times had actually reported what the Archbishop said in the House of Lords, the writer of that letter would have got his answer. But a headline asking people to reflect on the deeper issues wouldn’t have sold so many copies.”

Knee-jerk comment and report­ing, caught up in the competitive consumerist vortex of reader figures and profits, does not allow space for deep reflection. So we are looking for figures who will dethrone our idols, and whom we can follow with con­fidence.

Many of the answers lie in the hands of young people — not the looters, but those with sharp minds such as the two I have quoted, or Franklyn Addo, a 17-year-old in Hackney, whose moving article, “My crushed com­munity” (The Guardian, 10 August), had the depth of experience that so many other commentators have lacked.

Spiritual leadership is already available, from figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres. Their comments, which went largely unreported, dem­on­strate what the Church has to offer.

Dr Williams, speaking in the House of Lords last week, focused on the disastrously utilitarian turn that education took in the 1980s — all about skills for jobs, and not about character-building and virtue. Mean­while, Bishop Chartres argued that our moral compass can be re­covered only through an intergenerational net­work of relationships. Such inter­action across the range of ages seldom happens these days, but it does take place in the church.

In the parliamentary debate, only one MP, David Lammy (the member for Tottenham), acknowledged this. The fact that this was so suggests a disconnectedness with faith com­mun­ities on the part of our elected representatives, which needs to be addressed swiftly. Talk of the third sector does not do justice to the part that the Church and other faith com­munities play as agents of change.

St Mary’s, Tottenham, situated near the burnt-out Carpetright shop, which is now emblazoned on the hard drive of our nation’s memory-bank, is a classic example. Led by the Assis-tant Curate, the Revd Simon Morris, it is a community that has been im­mediately responsive to the riots, through a ministry of tea, sym­pathy, and mobile-phone-charging.

This was offered by a cross-generational group, day after day during the crisis, until after midnight. They modelled a functioning com­munity.

Yet they have done so in a way that takes us to the heart of our problems. There is genuine interaction between the young and not-so-young, and none of that tick-box youth involve­ment that I have seen in so many well-meaning but vacuous youth parliaments and council-sponsored forums. Such talking-shops isolate young people from everyone else, and do not allow the exercise of real decision-making and responsibility.

Church, in contrast, is a place where young people can, for instance, be on the PCC, shaping ministries and budgets alongside their elders, working and learning together. In our church, one third of the PCC is aged 16-18. As Aquinas reminded us, that is what a Church is at best: a cross-generational school for holiness, a place for all to transform brokenness. Secularist society forgets this model at its peril.

THE Church is also a place to learn how to negotiate the hierarchies of experience, power, and responsibility that build community. In Totten­ham, thriving Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades and worship servers provide a structured environment within which young people have the security to progress through the ranks.

As the former Vicar, the Ven. Luke Miller, explained: “The boat boy can become the MC. Concerns are addressed in the mums-and-toddlers group. Leadership in the Boys’ Brigade is a stepping stone to running the Sunday school, or to being an assist­ant manager at John Lewis.”

The urban mayhem suggests a lack of opportunity to learn, and, cru­cially, to exercise responsibility in com­munity. This is precisely what the Church, and all faith communities at their best, can offer. For us, it is a king­dom moment, which comes rarely. It is a chance to play a shaping part, doing what we do best for the good of our whole society.

The Revd Chris Chivers is Vicar of John Keble Church, Mill Hill, London, and the author of Fully Alive (Pretext, 2010).

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