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Hope depends on reconciliation, Archbishop Welby tells C of E education conference

02 February 2024

Chkn Media

The Archbishop of Canterbury answers questions from the audience at the National Education Conference

The Archbishop of Canterbury answers questions from the audience at the National Education Conference

CHURCHES and the nation have been losing the ability to disagree without hatred, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said — a path that, if followed, can end only in catastrophe.

Archbishop Welby was taking part in a Q&A at the Church of England Education Office’s National Conference, “Growing Faith and Sustaining Hope”, in Hackney, on Thursday, at the start of which he launched two initiatives for schools. The first, Flourish, is a programme to establish a network of worshipping communities in schools; and the second, Difference, is a resource, developed in partnership with the reconciliation team at Lambeth Palace, designed to equip students to cross divides, disagree well, and grow school communities.

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Asked why he had decided to prioritise reconciliation during his tenure, he said: “When I started in 2013, one of the key issues in churches and in the nation — and around the world — was that we were progressively losing (and we have gotten a lot worse at) the ability to disagree without hating each other. And if you follow that path on, you end in catastrophe, in doing terrible things.”

Growing up in a family “bitterly divided and with real problems” had given him, the Archbishop told the gathering, a deep sense that “one of the best things we can do as Christians, is not only introduce people to Jesus, but also to enable people to deal well with disagreement and argument, so that, particularly in families, we can challenge some of the ways in which people get hurt and damaged.”

Reimagining reconciliation is one of three “habits” in the Difference programme. The others are how to be curious, and how to be present.

Being curious was trying to find out someone’s point of view and understanding it, the Archbishop said, even if you didn’t agree with it, and to reimagine a new way of going forward. Students who had taken part in the pilot programme had said that their confidence had been raised, and also their ability to see the bigger picture and to empathise.

After questions, Archbishop Welby delivered a keynote speech on these themes. Referring to an international gathering at Lambeth Palace this week, he said: “Our society is ever more complex, ever more intertwined through social media, and evermore struggling to grapple with differences and division in such a way that everyone can flourish. Everyone has a good chance.”

He continued: “Social media connects us in a way we’ve never imagined possible, but also works to drive us ever further apart. . . We know, at the moment, what it is to be trolled, to be threatened. It happens in school communities. It happens in local communities. It happens at a national and a global level. We can end up just retreating to the echo chambers where we hear our own views given. And other perspectives feel frightening.”

He also spoke of political polarisation, and the rapid advance of AI, which he described as “not a threat: it is potentially a massive beneficial change, but it can’t work in a society that hates each other. It can’t work because it will then only be used to deepen hatred.”

AI could be utterly transformative, Archbishop Welby suggested. “Reconciliation is one of the ways that the energy there is in younger people about climate change, about the long term future in which they are deeply and profoundly invested [can be harnessed]. Reconciliation is one of the things they can become committed to. And they change the world.”

Young people’s passion for justice was a great marker, he said. “They dare to imagine and pursue a world where people all have the opportunity to flourish, and where discrimination is not right. They have a lot to teach the Church in that area.

“It’s essential they are valued, empowered, and equipped through lasting positive change. The Growing Faith Foundation, which is being celebrated here today, recognises their key role. We are trying, as the Church of England, to put young people at the centre of what we do in every area.

”We’re gathered today in a place [St John’s, Hackney, where the National Society was founded] where just a few individuals had the courage to imagine a new future for education, and thus a new future for the nation. And what they did changed the nation.”

He concluded: “Education, like reconciliation, is about imagination.”

The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, described the geopolitical landscape as decidedly gloomy. The Church was offering the Difference programme because it recognised that all schools had a huge part to play in equipping young people to cross divides, navigate disagreements, and encounter others well.

“For us, leading schools with hope is not merely wishful thinking, an optimistic outlook, or a positive attitude towards the future. It is a deeper, broader, richer concept that is rooted in God’s love and compassion for all people and for the whole of creation,” he said.

The conference, organised with the Foundation for Educational Leadership, also heard from Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp, an app that daily surveys what teachers think about particular issues in education; and the author and broadcaster Krish Kandiah (Interview, 8 September 2017), a specialist in refugee resettlement, child-welfare reform, educational innovation, and civil society.

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