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General Synod: ‘Don’t just blame the gangs’ for the rise in serious youth violence

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


Canon Rosemarie Mallet (in yellow cardigan) walks towards the Synod chamber on the University of York campus

Canon Rosemarie Mallet (in yellow cardigan) walks towards the Synod chamber on the University of York campus

THE Synod responded to the rise in serious youth violence. It carried a motion from the Mission and Public Affairs Council on Saturday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, Canon Rosemarie Mallett (Southwark) spoke of “a very serious issue for our nation, and for our parishes, and for our young people”. Her 12 years in her inner-city parish had been “bookended and punctuated by the deaths of young people, their lives often steeped in tragedy before ending tragically. I have conducted the funerals of too many young people, and I prefer to be there supporting the living rather than presiding over the death.”

She noted that youth violence had risen in recent years. The current level was “in part because successive governments have failed to understand the causes of violent youth crime. These include the pernicious nature of poverty and trauma, and risk factors like school exclusion and adverse childhood experiences, along with public-sector disinvestment nationally and locally.”

The public-health model was now coming into use. Many of those at risk, as both perpetrators and victims, had “grown up and been shaped by trauma”. Depression rates for gang-affiliated young people were twice as high as for others, and pupil-referral units could be used as recruiting grounds by gangs. One young man from her parish was moved to Portsmouth and was shot dead not long after.

“We must remember that the stories of violence among young people are not simply ‘their’ stories: they are ‘our’ stories, not only through common creation in the image of God, but also because they are part of our communities, many either attending a church school or living in the local area,” she said.

One of the young men killed at 15 had been confirmed a year earlier. Churches were “remarkably good at responding when a death occurs on our patch”, but the response was “mostly reactive”, and the Church needed to be proactive. There was already good news, including work with street pastors, knife-awareness programmes, and safe havens after school.

“The Church is in a unique position, and we shouldn’t let that potential for action go. We must be the Samaritan and not the Pharisee. . . In most places, the church has been there for generations. . . A place of stability and peace for families and individuals that lack both of these in their lives is invaluable.” It could be a place of reconciliation in areas where the families of victims and perpetrators lived side by side.

The motion would set out how the Church could care: C of E schools developing strategies to keep exclusions to a minimum, and dioceses providing resources and training for churches to be aware of signs of vulnerability to exploitation, and signposting people to local pastoral support, besides supporting chaplains and youth workers. An accompanying paper also highlighted the need for church buildings to be opened as places of sanctuary for young people.

Canon Alistair McHaffie (Blackburn), a vicar in Preston, described antisocial behaviour from a group of 30 young people in the town; a street pastor spoke of having been intimidated by 15 young men. In the past few months, there had been two stabbings. “Gang culture has mushroomed in our society.” What was happening was unprecedented, and stemmed from poverty. The council employed no youth workers now. While the Church had volunteers, they needed training. “Young marginalised people are feeling more marginalised than ever, and I wonder if this could be an open door for the gospel.”

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESBishop Dr Joe Aldred (Black-led Churches)

Bishop Dr Joe Aldred (Black-led Churches) brought warm greetings from Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. He spoke of a Churches Together in England initiative on this several years ago, and referred to the foreword by the Rt Revd James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool. It called on society to tackle the underlying issues behind youth violence. “The challenges of serious youth violence are complex and deeply rooted in a serious imbalanced society.” The mind-set needed to be changed from reactive to proactive — dealing with root causes rather than outcomes. Dr Aldred spoke of the importance of exclusion and the lack of love and affirmation that young people felt. “The challenges are many, and not confined to London: they are national and international.” Youth empowerment was crucial to stopping youth violence; as were knife bins and opening up churches.

Kashmir Garton (Worcester) spoke as a senior manager in the criminal-justice system and the National Probation Service. She had experienced the outcomes of children who had experienced neglect and poor education. “It is such vulnerability that makes them susceptible to being drawn into gangs and county-line groups that target such individuals.” The Church was unique: it was present in every community and at key life events. She urged partnership with statutory and voluntary organisations. “This work will require a culture change,” she said.

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London) described how, this week, he had had to take his children to school by a different route because of a police cordon. It was easy to be overwhelmed, and also dismiss everything as superficial. But, in the Synod chamber, he said, there was so much compassion. People were packed with the Holy Spirit, and that could change people’s lives. He spoke of a young person, Geoffrey, who had been drawn into community through the church. “I’ve seen many children like Geoffrey, over the years, grow up on my estate . . . but this low-key intervention means they have a support network.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, moved an amendment asking all Church of England schools to record and publish the numbers of exclusions annually, and to devise a strategy for minimising exclusions. Every exclusion was a failure, especially at a church school, where each person was valued uniquely.

The Revd Paul Hutchinson (York) moved an amendment calling on head teachers and school governors to “recognise how the use of fixed-term and permanent exclusions impacts upon serious youth violence”. The work on exclusions should be targeted at the right people. There were large parts of the country without church schools, and DBEs were, perhaps, the wrong targets.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESThe Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), wanted to resist this amendment. Exclusion was an important point at which home and school met, a point where the family must come in. He spoke of the use of makeshift weapons at school. Data was already being collected on exclusion, and work with young people should relate to the broad range of their experiences. He spoke of uniformed youth groups, and the help they could give young people, although there weren’t enough leaders to meet the demand.

John Freeman (Chester) wondered why this amendment was needed; as a school governor, he regulated many schools. The Synod should be concerned about people who slipped through the gaps of society.

Dr John Appleby (Newcastle) suggested that care was needed with regard to what the exclusion rates, once made public, could mean: sometimes, schools with the most exclusions were doing the riskiest work. He spoke of the concept of people who were not being excluded, but instead pushed out — to avoid exclusions. “If a school has poor statistics, but for good reason, it must have support.”

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) said that this could be a very punitive amendment. Local press would report on the bare statistics, and this could have a negative effect on schools.

Sarah Beach (Salisbury), who had taught some excluded pupils, said that no teacher excluded a child lightly. It happened only when all the school’s emotional, educational, and pastoral resources had been exhausted. She could support the amendment only if it would cause the Church to “plough money” into the schools with the most exclusions.

The Bishop’s amendment fell.

Canon Mallett resisted Mr Hutchinson’s amendment, which called on heads and governors to “recognise” the dangers of exclusions, and nothing more. “We want our schools to take action.”

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, suggested that the amendment picked up on parts of Dr Smith’s defeated one. It did not simply call for recognition of the impact of exclusion, but also asked those involved to seek alternatives. He cited the example of Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, whose head teacher had set up a pupil-referral unit, which took in all the excluded pupils of the area; it has now been rated as “outstanding” by OFSTED. “If you simply create another class in the school, it won’t work. They need to be in a totally fresh, new environment. If that can be done in Hull, it can be done anywhere.”

Penny Allen (Lichfield), a retired teacher and school governor, urged the Synod to support the amendment. There were problems with keeping some pupils in schools — if nothing else, because of the need to safeguard other students and staff. Schools also needed to offer some pastoral counselling, perhaps by reviving the old school-nurse schemes, or employing chaplains.

Jacob Vince (Chichester) said that he was in favour of the amendment as it stood, which would work in line with the new OFSTED inspection framework.

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) expressed concern that the Synod seemed to be saying that serious youth violence was caused mostly by poverty. His parish was one of the wealthiest in the country, but it still had huge problems. “It would be sad if this Synod seemed to be saying that if we could hide the problem by shifting [excluded] children back into schools this problem could be solved,” he warned. “I’m reluctant to name and shame through exclusion.” He wanted to resist the amendment.

Mr Hutchinson’s amendment fell.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) spoke about his Share Foundation, which had connections to 40,000 young people in care; and he noted the strong correlation between looked-after young people and gang formation. He recalled meeting Kriss Akabusi, who had grown up in care, and had told him that the “yearning for belonging” was so deep that it could easily have taken him gang culture, but he had joined the army instead. “If there is one yearning that the Church can answer, it is that sense of deep yearning for a sense of belonging.”

But it needed the Government to help make that happen. Forty per cent of care-leavers ended up not in education, employment, or training. Could there be a programme to address this, perhaps through engagement in church social-action work? Mr Oldham was having regular conversations with the Department for Education and the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi: “There is a real will to make this happen across the country.”

Canon Mallett welcomed the amendment, which, she said, “sharpens up our desire to work in partnership with the Government”.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was “conflicted” about the amendment: “It is better we take action within our control . . . better that we walk into our communities and work with our partners to help our young people belong.” The issue was not affecting cities alone, and it had its roots “in the recreational drug-taking in our more affluent areas”. At an event, a youth worker from the charity XLP said: “It takes a village to raise a child, but the same village can also kill a child. A young person can burn the village down to feel its warmth.” The Bishop concluded: “Let us be the change that we long to see.”

Canon Pete Spiers (Liverpool) spoke about the “knife angel” that had been on display at Liverpool Cathedral at Christmas: “A strong reminder that God wants to see justice in our world”. He supported the motion. “Surely we should say austerity has been a factor in the rise of knife crime.”

Peter Adams (St Albans) opposed the amendment: he did not want to “send a message that this is all about gangs. . . The message that we as a Church are against gangs is not going to be helpful one.” A church in Luton on an outer estate that had survivors and perpetrators had told him: “Please don’t let the emphasis be on what young people are doing wrong, or on gangs, or on the negative. Let’s draw people into a place where people can come and find hope and life.”

The amendment was lost.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESMichael Stallybrass (York)

Michael Stallybrass (York) had been struck a fortnight ago that the cathedral in Oslo was open from 6 p.m. on Friday to 10 a.m. on Saturday, as a sanctuary where counselling was on offer. “It’s not easy to do, but I was so encouraged by the way that that church has responded to a need in society.”

The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) spoke about the Church of the Venerable Bede, Newcastle, which had faced the challenge of “disruptive young people” who climbed on the roof, left needles around, and damaged the church. “The shrinking congregation felt threatened, and were frightened to go to church sometimes.” But someone had asked the young people what they needed, and from that emerged a project aimed at children and young people, offering them a safe place to go and an alternative to drug use and gangs.

“It was a wonderful thing not only for the young people but also for the congregation,” she said. “Social action is not an optional extra, an also-ran which happens after we have done our mission and evangelism.”

Canon Mallett completed her speech: “We rightly have an emphasis on building up the Kingdom through the development of new worshipping communities. We are asking for a concomitant approach to social action and social justice,” she said.

The motion asked the Church to be part of a “nexus of support” which would give “what thankfully remain a relatively small number of young people that chance for a more hope filled future; for, as Jesus said, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

The motion, carried nem. con., reads:


That this Synod, recognising that Serious Youth Violence affects the whole community;
a) call upon the National Church Institutions to recognise the opportunity the Church of England has to contribute to understanding of Serious Youth Violence and strategies to prevent it and to make available resources for those affected;

b) call upon Diocesan Boards of Education to recognise how the use of Exclusions impacts on serious youth violence and encourage alternative provision;

c) call upon dioceses to resource:
i) information about locally based resource and support networks, and training for church leaders in best practice for supporting those affected by Serious Youth Violence, including gun and knife crime, ii) partnership work with statutory organisations and wider civil society to provide pastoral care for people affected by serious youth violence.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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