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Treasure inter-generational friendships, webinar on youth and diversity is told

16 June 2021

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LAMENT for the children and young people missing from the pews is “the heart’s cry of the Church”, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said this week.

Addressing a Church House webinar on Tuesday, he described his visits to churches mainly populated by older people and sometimes with no children or young people at all. “When I speak to them and ask them about their hopes and dreams for their church, almost without exception the first thing so-called older people say is ‘We wish there were more children and young people here,’” he said. “This is the heart’s cry of the Church.”

The webinar, part of a series exploring the vision and strategy for the Church in the 2020s (News, 28 May), explored the third priority: “growing a younger and more diverse Church”. Dr Sanjee Perera, the Archbishops’ Adviser on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, spoke of decades of youth work in Anglican provinces. In the C of E, it felt “like an exhausting losing battle,” she observed. “Our youth groups are dwindling; Sunday schools are dwindling. In other parts of the Communion, the pews look quite different. . . There is something that grieves me enormously here.”

The 2019 statistics for mission found that average Sunday attendance had fallen by almost twice as much for children as for adults in the past decade: by 28 per cent, compared with 16 per cent (News, 18 October 2019). The average C of E church has only three children attending, and the smallest 25 per cent have, on average, none at all (News, 20 October 2017).

Amanda Neill, youth pastor of St Paul’s, Howell Hill, in Surrey, acknowledged that having a large youth group of more than 50 young people was “definitely unusual”.

“Young people’s perception of the Church is often that it is outdated and irrelevant,” she said. “We need to offer them something that’s attractive and relevant to their lives, which then changes their perspective, so they then look up at the Church and respect the Church. We have to rebuild that trust as we have failed in many ways.”

Mental-health support and visible practical service of the community were just two ways in which perceptions could be shifted. “To build good, strong youth groups, you need to start with families,” she said. “How can we support parents as a church? (Comment, 12 January 2018)” She wanted young people to have “a real depth to their faith and a real boldness . . . about practising the way of Jesus”. Inter-generational friendships were to be treasured.

Among the questions posed by online webinar participants was whether the Church’s liturgy was a barrier to young people. Archbishop Cottrell’s response was that “it is and it isn’t.” There was a need for “much more permissive experimentation” in a mixed-ecology church (News, 30 May), and it was vital to remember that “there is simply not a one-size-fits-all.” Cathedrals were “not known for their wacky, way-out liturgies”, and yet they had been consistently growing for decades, and most had “significant numbers” of young people and families.

The seminar explored other forms of diversity. Dr Perera described how, while conducting a scoping study on race and marginalisation in one diocese, she had been turned away from churches 22 times in 55 weeks. “It was never ‘You are black, you can’t come in,’ it was more like ‘You are here for the Indian service, that is in the church hall,’ or ‘We are about to start a service. Could you come back later,’ or ‘Are you looking for the black church that’s down the road?’” she recalled. She hoped for a world in which “we welcome everyone whoever they are . . . rather than having preconceived ideas about what the person who comes to the service looks or sounds like.”

She recalled a discussion with ordinands at Cranmer Hall, exploring the question “What do we do when you have missed the harvest?”

“We have to acknowledge the fact that we have failed in a lot of spaces and be assured that there is nothing lost in God’s economy,” she said. “Facing up to truths, however hard and discomforting, is not something that comes easily to us. . . There are things we don’t want to talk about, particularly with race and racism and our history with slavery.. . We have contributed to the darkness of this world . . . and we must say ‘Yes, we did that, and we are sorry,’ to a God that is merciful and forgiving.”

The biggest barrier to a more diverse Church was a lack of hope, she suggested. “I don’t think we trust the Lord enough to build, and it is easy to give into the despair. . . Sometimes, as Christians, we may look naïve to the world, like our optimism is childish; but our naïvety is a burnt offering to the Lord, because it is not naïvety: it is hope.”

Her comments were echoed by the Archbishop. “I wonder whether the biggest barrier is a barrier of imagination inside ourselves,” he said. “We have got so used to church being one thing that we just can’t imagine it being another thing. Many of us have only ever known the Church in decline. Perhaps, deep inside, we feel maybe that we have failed. . .

”I wonder whether, therefore at the heart of this, is that spiritual renewal and that re-imaginging and re-envisioning of the Church, which helps us to see that things can change, that the Church can grow.”

He was aware of “so many remarkable stories of small but very significant growth in church communities, which have become younger and more diverse”.

As a social scientist, Dr Perera was “not an optimist”, she admitted. “The data is not on our side. But we are a people of hope . . . and the Holy Spirit is not a variable you can measure. From where I stand, I am filled with an excitement that God is about to do something extraordinary in the Church of England, and that extraordinary transformation is coming for our hungry hearts.”

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