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 -
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
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