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Priestly formation needs revising to benefit children’s ministry

07 February 2020

Responses to Synod background paper call for change to training


REFORM of priestly formation, greater investment in youth workers, and recognition of midweek activities, including work in schools, are among the responses to statistics released by Church House which highlight the absence of children and young people from Sunday services (News, 24 January).

Individual church returns detailing average Sunday attendance suggest that 38 per cent have no children (aged 0 to 16), and that two-thirds (68 per cent) have five or fewer.

The statistics form part of a background paper to a motion set to be debated at the General Synod next week, which encourages dioceses to address the decline.

Last week, online responses to the numbers included reminders of the importance of schools work. About 40 per cent of churches with more than 25 young people aged 16 or under have a strong link to a Church of England school, although a diocese of London study found no statistical link between a parish having a church school and more young people (News, 7 July 2017). The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, has argued that the aim of its schools is not “simply drawing young people to church on a Sunday” (Features, 19 January 2018).

Others questioned why an aptitude for, and experience of, working with children and young people wasn’t a greater factor in the discernment and formation process for ordinands. Dr Pete Ward, Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University, suggested that clergy should spend two days a week on such work. He argued on Twitter that it was “ecclesially and missionally absurd to argue clergy have no calling to children and youth”.

The Synod background paper says that churches with large numbers of children and young people tend to be large, urban, and Evangelical, with a big ministry budget and an employed youth-, children-, or family worker.

Last year, the General Synod passed a motion that pledged to “support dioceses in investing resources to create more youth ministry posts across the Church” (News, 1 March 2019). A report for the Christian Youth Consortium by the Revd David Howell, a Baptist minister, found that the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students on Christian youth or children’s work programmes across the UK had fallen by 37.2 per cent between 2011 and 2018.


This week, the Church Times asked four people to comment in advance of next week’s debate: 

Margaret Pritchard Houston, Children’s Mission Enabler in St Albans diocese

THE report focuses predominantly on attendance on Sunday morning. Many churches are more and more realising the value, for families, of worshipping communities outside Sunday morning — toddler groups with worship, teatime Sunday services, and more. Of course Sunday morning is important. For one thing, it is the place most likely to be both intergenerational and eucharistic. It is, however, not the only time when Christian formation of children and young people can happen.

It is important that other ways of ministering with children, families, and young people are celebrated and counted, and that they are given the support they need to become places where real worship and real discipleship are happening.


Jimmy Dale, National Youth Evangelism Officer

AT THE heart of this paper is the need to recognise and respond urgently to the fall in Sunday attendance among under-16s. Not only is the decline significant, falling below 100,000 for the first time in 2018, but it is gathering speed. Our figures show that average Sunday attendance by under-16s fell by 25 per cent from 2003 to 2013, and then by 22 per cent in the five years from 2013 to 2018. There was a decline of eight per cent from 2017 to 2018.

Some have questioned whether Sunday attendance — which includes Sunday Fresh Expressions — is the right measure, noting much of the excellent ministry that exists outside of these services. While Sunday attendance is not a perfect measure, it is the most reliable and consistent statistical indicator we have on the engagement of under-16s with our churches.

Recent studies have shown “Generation Z” to be the most open generation to faith we have seen in a long time. There are churches with growing youth, children, and families ministries. We need to identify more of these and make sure that they are properly resourced, and used to help, where possible, other parishes. So far, this approach has been largely successful: in some cases, the number of under-18s has doubled in the space of a few years.


The Revd Tiffer Robinson, Rural Dean of Lavenham and Rector of Rattlesden with Thorpe Morieux, Brettenham, and Hitcham, in St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese

THE report, helpful though it is, makes predictable mistakes when dealing with children’s ministry in rural areas. In considering only single churches with 25 or more children, it fails to acknowledge the economies of scale with smaller churches, many of which punch above their weight with regard to children’s ministry. That there are 50 such churches in parishes smaller than 2500 people is fairly remarkable, let alone that some have more than 50 or 100 children. A rural church with five children in a village of 200 is doing remarkably well, but that isn’t reflected here. Scaled up, that would be equivalent to a parish of 10,000 having 250 children.

As ever, in rural churches, the challenge is achieving “critical mass” — enough children of similar ages in one place to encourage more — but, despite resistance from some congregations, most are keen to find ways to engage the next generation. Some multi-parish benefices seek to rotate or maintain children’s provision centrally on a Sunday, which can skew statistics, and most rural churches would find a monthly all-age service or Messy Church is all that they can manage. It is undoubtedly true that rural, along with urban, churches have seen a decline in the numbers of children overall — but, surely, we should be seeking to reverse that everywhere, and not just in large churches in urban areas?


Dean Pusey, an ordinand at St Mellitus College, who was previously a diocesan youth adviser

THE challenge for us is: How do we engage households with the story of faith? Our Western theology has been formed, primarily, by mostly single men — this was mentioned in a recent leadership lecture by Rowan Williams. We always have to ask questions about how things might be shaped by children and young people, and need to have the courage to help them co-create what faith in Jesus looks like in play and prayer in our different contexts.

It is making good on baptismal promises and bringing this liturgy to life. We need to make room to enable children and young people — particularly those from BAME backgrounds and those with disabilities — to help us to ask better questions in our formation. Having them with us would be enlightening, and TEIs [theological-education institutions] could make way to do this, but I have yet to see this currently — it is all mediated by adults.


Natalie Brookes, Children’s Ministry Lead, St Luke’s, Oseney Crescent, London

AT ST LUKE’s, we have about 40 under-16s. We view our children and youth as disciples and ministers of Jesus, not the church of tomorrow. We are passionate about helping them to grow in their relationship with God — not just looking after them — and want to enable them to engage with all that God has for them at the different stages.

We value a mix of all-age gathering and age-appropriate groups. This shows that the children and young people are a valued part of the church family, but also have different needs in their growth. We have amazing volunteers from the congregation who share in the teaching and serving of the children, and make provision for children and youth a financial priority in the annual budget, so that we are able to resource and grow the ministry.

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