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Interview: Anne Richards, National Adviser for Mission Theology for the Church of England

12 August 2016

‘You have to do a kind of audit of all your congregation’s needs’

It’s always important to me that any theology we do should have modern relevance. Otherwise. why do it?


There hasn’t been a great deal of serious engagement with children’s spirituality. As Rebecca Nye observes, as we grow older, we forget what it’s like to be a child, and make assumptions about it. Teenagers tell me: “My parents don’t understand me. They listen to what I say, but reinterpret it in the way that makes sense to them, which is so frus­trating.” Rebecca tells a story about some children mucking about with paper aeroplanes in church, which, she eventually realised, was actually their creative spiritual exploration.When I deal with teenagers, I do get frustrated: they have a roundabout way of answering my issues. It takes patience, and sitting on the side for a bit.


There’s fantastic work being done at both national and diocesan level and by charities such as the Chil­dren’s Society. But the world is chang­ing faster than we can often keep up with, and children and young people are being swept up by that. We really need to listen to their experiences and faith stories, because they teach us so much.


Younger people and children ex­­peri­­­­ence and consume reality differ­ently today. Many prefer to photo­graph, record, and share as a matter of course rather than “just” experi­ence. They are permanently net­worked to a cloud of absent others. That can be complicated for adults to under­stand, especially as the rate of innovation is now so great. Mike Frost has coined a word for this: “excarna­tion”; it’s a real challenge to know how, or whether, that should be integrated into our worship and practice.


Excarnation: people don’t experi­ence our world through our bodies any more, but through technology. So much so, people have phantom vibration syndrome, their bodies anticipating the vibration even if their phone isn’t in their pocket. Some teachers report kids very anxious when separated from mobiles, desperate to check their status. There’s sexting and cyber­bullying, but, on the other hand, there are a large number of oppor­tunities. How do we handle it? Does it need to be brought into the church arena, and, if so, how? We have to trust kids to tell us, and we have to listen.


I’m fascinated by what it means to be an embodied person in Western society. A lot of conversations I have with children and young people are about control over the body, and the ability to change it: by plastic surgery, by dieting, by get­ting tattoos. Health and beauty are goals that come with particular images in mind. What’s that all about? What happens when you get old and your health fails? What does being made in the image of God really mean? And what do these ideas about body mean in a global context?


A teenager asked me: “When I die, what will happen to all my social-media accounts, because that’s where I live, what a lot of me is? I realise what will happen to my body, but who will take care of my digital stuff? Should there be a funeral to say goodbye to it? Who gets rid of your Facebook stuff? Can people write on it for ever?” These ques­tions won’t go away.


I edited Through the Eyes of a Child with Peter Privett, because we wanted to get more child-centred theology into the mainstream. Lots of people, like Emma Percy and Bishop Paul Butler, were involved, and they presented some fascinating research, introducing people to what children were telling us. Angela Shier-Jones, a Methodist theologian, told us a story about a boy who was sent to buy a pizza, and on his way home gave it to a homeless man. When he got home, his parents were hungry and furious with him; but, to him, his action was exactly what Jesus had commanded.


When I got some extra time off for long service in my current job at Church House, Westminster, I thought of all the useful things I could do with it, like spring-clean the house and finally catch up with the ironing. But then I thought: I’ll write a book about God. I’m fas­cinated by the spirituality of chil­dren, and by the struggle with scrip­ture. So my book about God became Children in the Bible. But it’s also about the joys and difficulties of caring for, and being, children in today’s society, and where God is at work in all of that. So I think my book has relevance to everyone.


It’s incumbent on all of us to really struggle with OT history. It portrays a violent and chaotic world. It’s not easy; it’s very challenging — that’s one of the reasons I love it so much, particularly when we look at it from this end of history. I’ve argued that all human vocation is to be, and to grow, and to flourish, as human beings, and God doesn’t go back on that. It’s true that, in the world of the OT, children die all the time, but I don’t see this as the outworking of God’s will, but the outworking of the struggle caused by human sin.


Worship is difficult. It’s very diffi­cult for people to worship when there’s a large amount of noise in the church; but, if children are making a lot of noise, what are they telling us? They’re not in the right place: they need something else. I remember taking my children to church religiously. One was as good as gold, and paid attention; the other was bored rigid, and said embarrassing things. I never knew what to do for the best, because one was getting a great deal from it all, and the other one wasn’t. Once, a lady sang a psalm, and it wasn’t very good. My five-year-old son sud­denly said “She was crap!” I didn’t know what to do with myself.


My two children are very different. One has a strong sense of Christian ethics; the other is more theo­logically inclined. They’ve been ex­­posed to the same kind of religious upbringing, and applied it in different ways: one is creative and thoughtful, and the other wants to know what is the right thing to do, looks for pathways to live a good life.


We need a very creative approach, asking what different children need at a particular time. What do par­ents need? Each church has to ask these questions and find solutions tailored to every church. You have to do a kind of audit of all your congregation’s needs.


I don’t think God “uses” anyone. I don’t like that idea. I certainly think that God calls children in all the ways I have talked about in my book. God calls children just to be and to grow; he calls them, as all of us, to say “yes” to being human. And God finds us all worthy of commission, salvation, healing, and blessing.


Messy Church has really taken off. It’s creative, fun, and very adaptable. But I have a personal fondness for Godly Play, which I think has a real potential for allowing children to experience God through imagina­tive wondering and dreaming. One is a lot about doing; the other in-
cludes a lot about being; and I think children probably do need both those things.


I don’t have as much practical involvement with children now. I spend more time every week talking about the Christian faith with par­ents and teachers. Young people often contact me through social media about spiritual issues. We discuss things such as sexting and cyberbullying, because these things are real issues for them.


I’m proudest of work I’ve done with colleagues, whether in Church House or with the brilliant folk of the ecumenical Mission Theology Advisory Group. I think two of its publications, Sense Making Faith and Unreconciled, remain cutting-edge stuff that’s really helped a lot of people. I also think the Spiritual Journeys website has really helped us understand what people outside the Church are looking for. I’ve had some great contacts and conversa­tions through putting stuff on that site, and all kinds of people have told me that they have come to faith through exploring it, which is wonderful.


I was born in Cambridge. My father taught at the university, but my parents split up when I was still a baby, and I was brought up by my grandmother in rural Buckingham­shire, while my mother went out to work. We were not churchgoers, but my grandmother taught me to pray and gave me books about Jesus. My favourite was the story of Zacchaeus, because there was a sycamore tree in it, and I liked climbing trees.


I started going to church by myself as a teenager. Not coming from a church background, I tried all sorts of churches — Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Congregational, Baptist — and I investigated various sorts of other religions. At uni­versity, I went to every church in Oxford. I found a home at St John the Evangelist, on the Iffley Road. I loved that it had fewer students and more people from round about.


I initially studied English Literature before getting into theology. I did an M.Phil. and then a D.Phil. I wrote my doctorate on David Jones, the writer and artist..


I have an extraordinary family. My stepmother, Barbara, has just come back from trekking around Uzbek­istan; last year, it was Cuba. Recently, she came with the whole family to Orlando, Florida, for my son Jonathan’s wedding to Janell, who comes from there. They got married in the Science Museum, and my husband, Chris, read from Genesis in the Planetarium, against a backdrop of stars and planets. It was pretty amazing.


Chris is Professor of Asthma, Allergy, and Respiratory Science at Guy’s Hospital, and spends a lot of time going around the world, lecturing and doing research. When he’s not doing that, he plays the organ at church, especially for children’s services. My younger son, Philip, works in digital media and writes screenplays. I’ve also got two brothers: one who works for Brunner Scientific, and the other is a famous DJ and trance musi­cian. Almost all his family live near us in Essex; so we’re always meeting up in a big hilarious tangle of aunts, uncles, and nephews.


To my grandmother’s despair, I wasn’t into dolls and dresses. I liked being outside, wearing wellies, getting filthy and wet in rivers, and falling out of trees. I found an adder, and came in and waved it joyfully in my grandmother’s face. So my first conscious experiences of God were all from the natural world: a field of cowslips, a huge blue empty sky, riding horses, that beau­tiful adder. And my first response was one of intense, soul-crunching gratitude. I remember sitting for hours in wet grass shaking with cold and joy and thanks for the creation. My grand­mother came out and told me off; so I particularly re­­member that.


Wilful injustice, wilful negligence, wilful incompetence, wilful stupidity make me angry. When human beings won’t use their God-given gifts, intelligence, and capabilities to make the world more just, more beautiful, and more peaceful and more loving for those who are in need now, and those who are to come after us.


Christmas and Easter are my happiest times. Quite apart from loving those great feasts of the Church, it’s because all my extended family come to church, and then we all get together for a huge meal and celebration. My sister-in-law cooks, and I get to play with my small nephews, Matthew and George, all day. Bliss.


The greatest influence on me was a primary-school teacher, Horace Fitch, who had himself been taught by J. R. R. Tolkien. He gave me Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Book of Job, and The Hobbit. For a child in need of powerful stories about love, faith, and friendship, that was an extraordinary gift.


The extraordinary passion for justice I see in so many young people gives me hope, and creative people who bring beauty into the world. Glimpses of God at work, tirelessly, everywhere, and in all sorts of people.


Actually, I have been locked in a church before, and it was really boring; so I would love to be locked in with Mrs Doyle from Father Ted. Not only would she keep me supplied with tea, sandwiches, and a vast amount of hilarious gossip, but I’d love to hear her talk about her own faith, and how she copes with all those priests. I might have to stop her cleaning the win­dows, though.


Dr Anne Richards was talking to Terence Handley-MacMath.


Children in the Bible: A fresh approach is published by SPCK.

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