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General Synod: mission and ministry for children and young people

01 March 2019

Synod hears vision to change the culture of the Church

Geoff Crawford

Synod members hold up copies of Family Prayer Adventure: The map, a children’s resource for Ascensiontide

Synod members hold up copies of Family Prayer Adventure: The map, a children’s resource for Ascensiontide

THE House of Bishops report Growing Faith: Ministry amongst children and young people was welcomed on Friday afternoon, and the General Synod encouraged dioceses, parishes, and schools to include youth and children’s ministry in their mission strategies.

Introducing a motion from the House of Bishops, the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, asked the whole Synod to stand up, and then asked its members to sit down again according to the decade of their life in which they had come to faith: most had done so as a teenager or child. This was representative of the C of E currently: research carried out by ComRes in 2017 found that 76 per cent of Christians had come to faith before the age of 18, 50 per cent of whom were under the age of 11.

“If we are not focused on growing faith with children and young people, then we are simply ignoring this reality,” the Bishop said.

The vision was to change the culture of the Church through education, evangelism, ministry, and the Bishops’ document Setting God’s People Free in schools and homes. But, he said, “Growing Faith is not a silver bullet, and so it is not offered as a simple solution. . . it is not about a dynamic which is all adult to child.” Nor was it “just another initiative” to burden the Church with, but, rather, it sought to “raise the spiritual temperature across the land in churches, schools, and households”.

Synod members were given a “prayer map” that had been given to all children in C of E schools. Bishop Conway concluded: “General Synod may also want to consider committing itself to always assessing the impact of its own policy, practice, and priorities through the same lens, I propose.”

Rosemary Walters (Canterbury), a former RE teacher and trainer, asked whether the Synod could focus on the questions that young people were asking rather than promote a set package. Social action needed more focus: young people in her church had decided last year to raise money for 40 sleeping bags for homeless people for each of the days of Lent, which had led to reflections on the gospel.

More could be done to engage young people with the complexity of religious text. She spoke of one student whose mother had been blinded in a car crash and who had asked, during a lesson on the parable of the blind man, why Jesus had not healed her mother. The Church should not shy away from these complexities, she said, so that children never “grow out of hearing stories”.

Kathryn Tucker (Bath & Wells) wanted to give encouragement to the Synod. She was involved with schools, where, among other things, she told Bible stories. “They love to hear them, and I want people to be encouraged by that.” The parents, grandparents, and staff were also on a learning curve. The children wanted their parents and brothers and sisters to be involved in the church services. The tap was dripping, not flowing, she said, but “we will get there.”

Supporting the motion, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, asked what the Church was going to do about the report. “Is it all just talk? We need action, not just words.” Many parishes wanted to do more with young people, but did not have the resources and the opportunity. Families and communities were “crying out” for young people to find meaning, he said, and he praised the work of the Church Army. “A new missional church network is emerging.” The plan was to launch youth congregations in towns, church halls, and city centres.

Moving his amendment, Canon Peter Moger (York) said that he wanted the motion to recognise the context in which young people contributed to the faith in cathedrals, which, he said, was a “wonderful mission opportunity”.

Bishop Conway welcomed the amendment, recognising the thousands of children who came to cathedral days. The Archdeacon of Sarum, the Ven. Alan Jeans (Salisbury), pointed to other opportunities for children’s mission, including chaplaincy to army, air, and sea cadets.

His amendment was carried.

Resuming the debate on the motion as amended, Archbishop Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox Church) said that he had been in children’s ministry for 35 years. “For me, it forms a stablising part of my ministry.” His Church had recently celebrated the centenary of its Sunday school: “In Sunday school, we are servants, not teachers.”

One in 13 young people had suffered PTSD by the age of 18, he said. “Churches must continue to minister to young people through action. We must channel their activity, their passions, and their vulnerability.” He prayed that the focus on safeguarding had not become a challenge to children’s ministry. “Our hope is in our children and young people.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, called for greater co-ordination between ministry in churches, schools, and homes. It was important for schools to explore the scriptures further, and for parents to read the Bible with their children, and be honest about what they did not understand. The “biggest critique” of toddler groups in his diocese was that they did not teach the children and their parents Bible stories, or teach them how to pray.

Bishop Butler recommended that dioceses follow Durham’s example and set up a Children’s Council to take a creative lead in evangelism. Evangelism had to be “generational, cross-generational [helping grandparents to pass on their faith to their grandchildren], and inter-generational — because we have to do this together”.

James Lee (Guildford) said that families needed the confidence to pass their faith on to their children.

Sophie Mitchell (C of E Youth Council) said that her faith journey had been accelerated when her church had employed a youth worker. She said: “Young people want to engage with the Church and be listened to. But it’s your responsibility to open your ears and support them.”

James Cary (Bath & Wells) warned against going to such lengths to attract children to church as risked their being distracted from scripture.

The Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven. Simon Heathfield (Birmingham), urged the Synod to get involved with residential summer youth camps, which, he said, offered deep community and incarnational mission.

Sarah Finch (London) wanted parents and grandparents to invest in the spiritual lives of children by praying and reading the Bible with them. “The hard work of bringing up children to know God . . . is hugely worthwhile,” she said.

Susan Witts (Blackburn), a former children’s adviser in the diocese, said that children’s ministry must be at the heart of parish work, not an add-on. Blackburn diocese provided downloadable resources for teaching children.

The Revd Alison Booker (Leicester) said that “young people want to be more involved” in bodies such as PCCs, deanery synods, and the electoral roll, despite opposition from some “adults, other clergy”. “Our young people’s voices have changed us.”

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) suggested that church secondary schools host youth clubs, given local-authority cuts, to reduce the drop-off of churchgoers in their teens and early twenties.

Debbie Woods (Chester) said that it was important not to make false assumptions about young people’s levels of receptivity. “My plea is that we don’t underestimate what we need to be teaching our young people, and what their sponge-like brains can cope with.” The Bible should be taught at least in the depth to which young people studied subjects such as mathematics.

The motion as amended was carried overwhelmingly.

That this Synod

a) welcome the House of Bishops’ vision set out in Growing Faith (GS 2121); and
b) encourage all dioceses, parishes, fresh expressions, Church of England schools, cathedrals and college or university chaplaincies to ensure they weave it through every strand of their strategies for mission and ministry.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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