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Why religion shouldn’t be too cool for school

06 March 2015

Teenagers are surprisingly interested in God, but they have an unerring instinct for authenticity, suggests Tess Kuin Lawton

IN A DIVORCE, ask the children what is going on, and you will get a crystal-clear mirror reflecting back the heart of the problem. If you want to know how your school is running, ask the children about their teachers. Children are natural barometers of decency, kindness, and love; when it comes to spirituality, they have a "true north" compass.

After a while, as their teacher, you become attuned to what interests them, and what switches them off. So, for example, this week: a long lecture on Just War theory from an eminent and brilliant professor - boring. The fact that he casually and easily referred to himself as a Christian - extraordinary.

Or a Year 10 trip to a Buddhist Vihara and a Christian church. Stories of famous but ancient preachers - boring. Unexpected reference to a Theravadan monk who currently lives in a cave - super-cool.

I HAVE been leading this trip for several years now, and we have varied the Christian churches we visit. One of the reasons for this is that it has been hard to find a church that can stand the comparison with the Vihara. On the surface, this is rather odd. The Oxford Buddhist Vihara is a thickly carpeted room with cushions on the floor, in a semi-detached house that used to be a B&B. The churches we have access to in Oxford are in a completely different league: ancient, historical, stunningly beautiful. So why are they struggling to compete?

I am now convinced that, when Jesus said that "such as these will enter first the kingdom of heaven," this is what he was talking about: the teenage barometer for what is true, what is good, what is holy. In that suburban semi, they are led in meditation by a monk in saffron robes who tells them that "breathing is your home. Quiet does not mean 'inactive'." And a deep, deep calm falls over a room of 45 restless teenagers.

When they quiz him about the creation of the world, they lap up his answer that he "doesn't know about that" but he "knows about now, about the present moment, about training the mind and the energy in the art of compassion". (Maybe we could offer this as an answer for those American Republican candidates battling their way through the minefield of evolutionary debates in the caucus - "That question is not conducive to edification.")

EVERY year, on this trip, I reflect on what we might learn from this group of mindful young 15-year-olds, if we were to do what Jesus did, and listen to them. If the majority of children now come to Christianity (and indeed all faiths) from the outside, we must consider how it looks to them from that perspective.

The pervading myth, pedalled by the secularists, is that religion is something - like strangers - that is best avoided. I am tempted to argue for an Oxford Movement revival of robes and incense, social action, and "the beauty of holiness". Teenagers love a bit of "weird", and there is no doubt that they live by the senses. Is it just my own bias that convinces me of the need of a return to lace and candles?

Probably. Because teenagers keep you true; and the truth in this situation is that the robes and the incense of the venerable Dhammasammi are only "cool" because he is a man of luminous holiness, which they deeply respect. So, while it is true that we should not be afraid of vestments and exquisite liturgy, the unchurched young are just as likely to find God among the power-points and electric guitars. The reason for this is that what they are interested in is God - not you, and not me. If we live lives that shout God aloud, or even that quietly whisper God's name in the midst of the silence, they are listening, and they are interested.

TWO further illustrations from school. My Roman Catholic colleague and I began taking a retreat to the Carmelite Priory once a year, and the numbers of pupils who come has continued to grow. When persuading their friends to come, they talk about the football and the cake, the late-night chats, and the fantastic lasagne. What they really love is that they talk about the Holy Spirit together, and go to vespers with the friars. They look forward to the outdoor Stations of the Cross, and to ending the day with the Lord's Prayer while holding hands. "It's honest," one boy said to me. "It's where I feel real."

The other unexpected success was when we advertised for pupils to take part in the Cranmer Awards, which involve reciting passages from the Book of Common Prayer. Why should I be surprised that the Bible is as powerful as it is? Yet, every year, I have pupils whose lives are changed by it.

But beware. Looking at Christianity from the outside, with the acerbic eye of youth, we must understand that we are in greater danger than ever of being spotted as the Emperor with no clothes. To paraphrase St Paul, "if I play all the worship music in the world, and if I do all the right moves at the altar but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure . . . think on these things" (Philippians 4.8). What might the acerbic true north of adolescence teach us? We need to pray more, because you can spot someone who prays at a hundred metres. Teenagers are sensitive to prayer just as they are sensitive to high-frequency noise, intended to keep them away from village halls and municipal buildings. We need to learn how to talk about God, and to ask them about Jesus, with the same ease and confidence with which we talk about "deanery synods", or "Parish Share", or "intercessions". And, finally, we should pray with them, and for them, and offer to bless them; and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

The Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton is Chaplain of Magdalen College School, Oxford.

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