AMID a rise in serious youth violence, whose causes governments had failed to understand, the Church must “be the Samaritan and not the Pharisee”, the General Synod heard on Saturday.
Members unanimously backed proposals for action, asking for dioceses to provide training for church leaders in supporting those affected by the violence, including gun and knife crime.
Moving the motion, Canon Rosemarie Mallett, Vicar of Angell Town, in Brixton, described how her 12 years in the parish had been “bookended and punctuated by deaths of young people, their lives 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 dead,” she said.
The rise in youth violence was in part due to the failure of successive governments to understand its causes, she argued: “These include the pernicious nature of poverty and trauma, and risk factors like school exclusion and adverse child experiences, along with public-sector disinvestment nationally and locally.”
Echoing later speeches, she said that many of the victims and perpetrators of violence had been “shaped by trauma”. They were also more likely to be either permanently excluded from school or sent to pupil-referral units, which could be used as “recruiting grounds” by gangs.
The problem was spreading outside our cities, with “middle-class drug-taking fuelling the rise of County Lines drug trafficking”. One young man in her parish had been moved for safety to Portsmouth. He was shot dead not long after. Another young man who was killed at the age of 15 had been confirmed a year earlier.
The response of the Church needed to shift from reactive to proactive; it must not let the potential for action go. “We must be the Samaritan and not the Pharisee.”
Churches could be “places of safety” (Comment, 17 August 2018) and, in parishes where families of perpetrators and victims lived side by side, “a place not only of pastoral care for individuals, but also forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation with each other and with God”.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, traced the roots of the crisis to “recreational drug-taking in our more affluent areas”. She quoted a youth worker from the charity XLP who had 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 Revd Alastair McHaffie (Blackburn), vicar of an inner-city church in Preston, described an “unprecedented” rise in violence locally: “Gang culture has mushroomed in our society.” It stemmed from poverty, he said.
“Surely we should say austerity has been a factor in the rise of knife crime,” Canon Pete Spiers (Liverpool) said.
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred (Black-led Churches) suggested that the Pentecostal emphasis on spiritual warfare, powers, and principalities, could have something to offer the Synod’s analysis. “The challenges of serious youth violence are complex and deeply rooted in a serious imbalanced society.”
Several speeches emphasised the uniqueness of the Church’s offering. The Revd Dr Jason Roach, an adviser to the Bishop of London, spoke of people “full of compassion, packed with the Holy Spirit”.
Much of the debate was taken up with amendments about the Church’s approach to school exclusions, which were ultimately defeated. This prompted the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, to go online and lament a “wasted opportunity”. The unamended motion asked the diocesan boards of education to “recognise how the use of exclusions impacts on serious youth violence and encourage alternative provision”.
Last year, the Education Select Committee suggested that “hidden exclusions” in schools were a national scandal, and spoke of a lack of “moral accountability” in schools (News, 17 August 2018).
Also rejected was an amendment from Gavin Oldham (Oxford), which called on the Government to “explore ways of addressing the yearning for a sense of belonging, which results in so many young people being drawn into gang-based communities”.
Having run out of time for her opening speech, Canon Mallett was able to complete her remarks at the debate’s conclusion, noting that her motion asked the Church to help give “what thankfully remain a relatively small number of people the chance for a more hope-filled future; for as Jesus said, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”.
The motion carried by the Synod 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.