IT IS a Wednesday morning, and the Revd Dr Mark Dimond is standing on a chair in front of a class of Year 8 students, pretending to be Jesus on a mountain top in the desert. Dr Dimond has set himself the challenge of getting teenagers to think about temptation. The chair stint seems to work in capturing their attention.
Next, he hands out small stones, each marked with a white cross. The giggling has stopped now, and heads are down, as everyone writes down one thing they could do to get closer to God. As the bell goes, they pocket their stones as a reminder of the changes that they could make in their lives, and leave the classroom relatively quietly.
Dr Dimond is one of 16 clergy from two neighbouring Welsh dioceses who take it in turns, on a rota, to make daily visits to one of the largest secondary schools in Cardiff, St Teilo’s Church in Wales High School. These visits are over and above the usual school assemblies and services that happen in all church schools. The minister on duty that day arrives at the school at 10 a.m. and stays for two hours, chatting to pupils, leading classroom worship sessions, and offering pastoral counseling to those who seek it.
THE scheme was set up in March 2015 by the diocese of Llandaff, which has been joined by the diocese of Monmouth, as St Teilo’s straddles both dioceses. It followed a request from the school, concerned about pupils’ pastoral welfare, after a redevelopment that led to a move into a state-of-the-art building and an increase in the number of pupils to 1500. Now, a year on, the scheme is proving so effective at ministering to teenagers — that increasingly elusive demographic in today’s Church — that the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, is considering rolling it out to other schools.
“Persuading teenagers to turn up to church on a Sunday morning has never been easy, particularly now that there are so many competing activities available,” Dr Morgan, who is also the Bishop of Llandaff, says. “Their needs, however, are greater than ever, with rising incidences of depression, poverty, anxiety, and self-harm. That is particularly evident in areas of social deprivation such as the east of Cardiff, the catchment area of St Teilo’s. So this scheme takes clergy into school to meet teenagers on their own ground, as it were.
“Clergy are there principally to tackle the hurting-points, which, in a school of this size, can be many. Sometimes, it is easier for pupils to talk with someone from outside the school. Clergy offer a listening ear, a change of pace, or an alternative perspective in an otherwise dynamic school environment.
“I am delighted this scheme is up and running, and has been so successful, in that clergy have been willing to engage, and the school has benefited. I hope it will spread to other parts of the diocese as well. The Church has not always been all that good at engaging with young people, and this is one effective way of doing that.”
THE head teacher of St Teilo’s, Ceri Weatherall, is equally enthusiastic. She describes the scheme as part of the school’s “wrap-around care from faith”.
“On the front of the school is a huge curve, and on the curve, in massive letters, it says: ‘St Teilo’s Church in Wales High School’,” she says. “If I had the finance, I would light those letters up in the night so that every car passing on the A48 below us recognises that this building is not only a school, but it is a faith school, and it is what it says on the tin.
“When we moved to this new building, we moved into a socially deprived catchment. We saw the number of pupils eligible for free school meals jump from just over one in ten, to one in four. Suddenly, a quarter of our pupils had difficult social and economic backgrounds; they faced constant stress in families who didn’t know where the next pennies were coming from.
”Many of our children did not attend a place of worship, let alone an Anglican church. We set up a foodbank in school, but there was also a very clear pastoral need.
“I didn’t want faith to be something that we forced children to respond positively to. I wanted faith to be caught, not taught, by the modelling of faith in action by adults around them, and for this to demonstrate to them what living a life of faith was like.
“So, with that in mind, we wanted to do something proactive to raise the profile of the Church that underpins our faith message. I was familiar with the model where clergy come in from their parishes, and hold parish prayers one day a week, but I didn’t think that would work in this school. I wanted something quite unique, quite different, and something engaging.
“In St Teilo’s, our main aim is to ensure we provide an opportunity to worship together as a community. Many schools follow a routine where pupils arrive in the morning, they come off the buses, they go into registration, then they have a window of 20 minutes for worship.
”We found this difficult to manage. Buses would often arrive late because of the heavy traffic in Cardiff, and that was disruptive. It wasn’t delivering a quality opportunity for reflection. As a consequence, when learners arrive at St Teilo’s, they go straight into lesson one, they have two hours of lessons, and then the school moves to a 30-minute period of worship.
“So we really put worship in the centre of the morning, because we value its purpose, and the message it gives us as a school. A priest arrives half an hour before that worship slot every day, and leaves half an hour after it. Their visit starts with a walkabout: just being visible, speaking to children they have started to engage with, and building relationships with others. Children are on the move and say ‘Hello’ to them. They have a warm relationship — one that’s casual, not formal. They are accepted by the whole school.
“The priest then conducts a form of worship with a different year-group every day, stimulating discussion with 30 learners. Afterwards, there is an opportunity for individuals or small groups to see the priest: to sit, talk, or just be listened to. That could be around a particular issue that a child has, or it could be simply be a chat over a cup of coffee with a game of chess. Relationships are slowly built and fortified as a consequence.
”We are finding that individual students want to keep that contact going: they feel comfortable talking about issues that perhaps they would not be able to discuss with anybody else.”
Mrs Weatherall says that setting up the scheme was itself a leap of faith. “I totally appreciate how difficult the scheme has been for both Llandaff diocese and Monmouth diocese to organise and to set up. Clergy are very busy people; their diaries change on a daily basis.
”At the beginning, the clergy were nervous, and I was a bit nervous about them going into a classroom. I didn’t know whether it would work. But the feedback has been very positive. And I hope we have allayed clergy fears, and shown them that children between the ages of 11 and 18 haven’t got horns and tails, but are young people with whom they can work and engage.”
DR DIMOND, the Archbishop’s chaplain, is in charge of the clergy rota. He agrees that most of the clergy were not sure what to expect at first. “When Archbishop Barry asked me last year to organise a team to visit St Teilo’s, I thought that it would be hard work persuading busy people to take on an extra task,” he says. “However, it took no time at all to raise interest. Clergy were very positive, as they were keen to engage with young people, and we quickly had enough volunteers to ensure that every day we would have someone visiting the school.
”Our aim was clear: to increase clergy presence, to offer pastoral support for pupils, and to give socially disadvantaged pupils self-confidence.
“Nerves were inevitable, of course. Many clergy didn’t have much experience of being put in front of 30 pupils, let alone lead a 20-minute worship session for them. Supposing the students had never been to church before? For some of us, including me, it was a challenge; but, once you got the measure of your audience, the second visit was a lot easier.
“Each cleric brings something different to the school. Clergy might engage with pupils about ethical issues, introduce a traditional prayer format, encourage the class to collaborate on the design of a thematic poster, or allow time for silence in front of a solitary candle. One cleric is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians, and literally brings his bag of tricks.
“But you always have to be open-minded, keep on your toes, and be ready to answer unexpected — and often very good — questions. We talk informally, offer possible options to niggling issues pupils may have, or just play a game. It is remarkable how you can play chess and talk at the same time. We hope, in any case, that pupils feel a bit better about themselves when they leave than when they come in.
“The school seems to be benefiting from the whole experience of clergy being present, but I think clergy also gain something. We are dealing with a culture where many young people have never even been into a church, and so we can at least plant some ideas about the spiritual life. We also get to know where they are coming from, and therefore develop our ‘listening ears’.”
Hard evidence of the success of the scheme, Mrs Weatherall suggests, is the number of pupils signed up to a “Friends of Jesus” course set up by the school chaplain, a member of the RE department. “Our chaplain offered an opportunity for learners to come and engage. I was a little bit sceptical about whether anyone would, but in fact 15 children have come forward of their own volition, and I am really proud of that.”
DR DIMOND’s last port of call at St Teilo’s is with a few Year 9 members of the school’s student chaplaincy team. The team was set up three years ago, and now has eight volunteers. The three words they would use to describe the ethos of the school are: positive, encouragement, and faith. “Pupils find it very helpful to see clergy, to talk privately about things that are going on in our minds; things we need to talk about,” Matthew Tyler-Howells says. “Everyone needs to talk. Teenagers can be less confident and find it difficult, but it is important for us.”
“We’re trying to make St Teilo’s more of a church than a school,” Oliver Smith says, “which may sound a bit silly; but, actually, learning is a lot more powerful when it is added to by faith. Without its Christian ethos, this school would not be as positive as it is now — I’m sure of that.”
Anna Morrell is the Archbishop’s Media Officer for the Church in Wales