THE 21 for 21 project — selecting 21 young leaders who have shown a great commitment to interfaith matters — is, we would argue, the best sort of talent contest. First, none of the 21 people chosen by the judges put himself or herself forward. There may be nothing wrong with expressing ambition: at least, the Church’s method of selecting clerics for higher office now relies on their willingness to put themselves forward, often on multiple occasions. But such a method inevitably misses the quietly competent wouldn’t-be leaders, who would do well in positions of greater responsibility if dragged to them despite a genuine reluctance — unlike the ceremonial reluctance of a new House of Commons Speaker. The hundred or so people nominated during the project were put forward by their peers and those with whom they had worked. One of the commonest reactions when we contacted the 21 earlier this week was surprise. The Church’s system of preferment is lacking in draggers, and could learn a thing or two from this project.
Second, and related to the first point, the 21 for 21 project focused on young people (defined generously as those under 40). The shift in the UK jobs market caused by the removal of an automatic pension age has not yet had anything like its full impact, but one obvious effect is the suppression of youthful talent. The Church is not alone in equating wisdom and ability with old age — despite multiple examples to the contrary — but it is one of the greatest culprits, which might account for the poor attendance figures among a younger generation who feel under-used and undervalued, and the continued difficulty of attracting young ordinands. As can be seen in the profiles of the 21, most of them have already assumed or created positions of great responsibility, some while studying at university. We did, though, have it both ways. The nominations were assessed by an experienced panel of judges, senior figures from the three faiths involved, who expressed delight at the talent on show.
Finally, those nominated were not in competition with each other. What the profiles show is a wide variety of approaches to promoting interfaith harmony. The need to bring the different communities closer together led, perhaps inevitably, to a preponderance of organisers. None the less, who would have thought that a community café, hip hop, a “Speedfaithing” session, and an allotment would all be used to the same end? The 21 for 21 project has shown the creativity and energy that exists among individuals and groups who perhaps benefit from being at one remove from the cares of running their own denominations. One notable aspect is that, paradoxically, those working in the interfaith field are able to be more open about their own faith and opinions, with none of the reserve used to hold traditional religious institutions together. Together with our partners — Jewish News, BMTV, and Coexist House — we have been inspired by the people discovered by this project, and hope others are, too.