A younger church?

The Rev’d Steven Hilton recalls the success of the Church of England’s youth initiatives in the 1990s, and asks whether the Church’s mission and growth might be better secured by employing not more clergy but more youth workers.

In July 1996 I had just turned 17 years old and General Synod had endorsed a report called Youth A Part. It’s worth quoting in full something of the vision contained in that report:

The vision is for a Church that takes young people seriously.

It is a Church where young people fully and actively participate at every level. 

It is a Church which is built on good relationships, where young people particularly are concerned, not only with each other, but with those inside and outside the Church.

It is a Church where there is a good theological understanding of why and how it goes about its work with young people.

It is a Church which recognizes that work of this quality needs resources and has the faith and courage to commit significant resources to the young people in the Church.

I wonder how the Church has measured up to these lofty words?

Skip forward to 1999 and I found myself at ‘Time of Our Lives’ with other young people from the Diocese of Chichester and every other diocese. Archbishop George Carey had invited 3,500 young people to a bank holiday weekend of events in London including workshops and seminars on contemporary and faith issues, a jazz concert, worship in London’s cathedrals and at the Royal Albert Hall, and a massive garden party at Lambeth Palace.

We came in our droves in diocesan groups aboard coaches from every corner of England, sleeping in churches, halls, and crypts. There were 40 of us on the crypt floor at St Peter’s Church, Walworth Road. It was both uncomfortable and great fun. And most incredibly our bishops came with us and stayed with us: for a whole long bank holiday weekend.

The outcome: thousands of young people feeling energised and wanting to commit further to Christ and his Church of England.

Eighteen months later I was elected to General Synod (aged 21) and had begun a (long) journey towards ordination. But I wasn’t the only one.

Out of this period of listening to, and engaging with, young people came many, many vocations including to ordained ministry and lay leadership. There was a sense that the Church and its leaders really did care about young people and wanted to listen to our experiences and learn from us.

There were reports, and strategies, and financial resources made available: a National Youth Strategy and a Youth Evangelism Fund. The Church talked about nurturing young people as leaders so they could be fully contributing and participating members of church communities. The Church talked about young people having stronger representative voices, and it developed ways of accrediting and training church-based youth workers as well as affirming the army of volunteers who enable youth work to take place safely.

A significant number of our diocesan gang are now serving as parish priests. This is not a coincidence.

Skip forward to 2019 (the year I was ordained deacon) and the mean age for stipendiary clergy being ordained was 40.7 years. Clearly, something had changed.

If we want to be a younger church (and I hope we do) then we will need to invest once again much more heavily in those who work with our young people. For the statistics make grim reading: 38 per cent of our churches have no 0-16s and 68 per cent have fewer than five young people.

Dioceses across the Church are currently re-imagining structures and we have a new national vision that is evolving. That we are going to have to do things differently seems obvious to most by now and COVID has hastened the pace of change.

However, what we now must recognise afresh is that it is young people themselves who have the greatest evangelistic potential at reaching new generations for Christ.

It is young people who have much to teach the Church about transforming unjust structures.

It is young people who are increasingly committed to safeguarding the integrity of creation.

It is young people who, as a rule, welcome diversity and recognise its value.

It is young people who, when animated and encouraged, so easily develop hearts for loving service in their communities.

It is young people who have so much to offer as they challenge us: ‘Why do we have to do it like that?’ and ‘Why do we have to be like this?’

And it is young people who have turned their back on the Church of England.

In order to equip young people for this ministry, we need to train and deploy first-class youth workers based in our churches and working in and across our parishes and our schools; often with other churches, other denominations, as well as with secular colleagues. 

For this to take place, yes, this may mean we need fewer stipendiary priests and more stipendiary youth workers.

With finite resources, we may need to invest more strategically. If we need more youth workers (and we will need to pay and house them properly), this is likely to have an impact on the deployment of stipendiary clergy. We may need to be yet more creative across parish and deanery boundaries and there may be little room for the territorial preoccupations we clergy seem to enjoy.

Please do not misunderstand me: I love being a priest. It has completed me. I give thanks to God each and every day that I have the honour of sharing his priestly ministry.

However, those things that are specifically and uniquely priestly take up a very small part of my week. Much more of the week feels significantly more diaconal than priestly and the work of a youth worker is a diaconal ministry too, but one the Church has not honoured in the same way as we do with ordained ministry.

It’s worth remembering that this historic commitment to youth ministry was Church-wide and across traditions. It was Bishop Eric Kemp (the oldest bishop by a country mile) that appointed the youngest bishop in the Church of England at that time. He knew that nurturing young people was the key to church growth and more vocations. Indeed, Bishop Lindsay Urwin went on to champion youth workers and was key in setting up that wonderful weekend in London. The result has been clear to see.

I hope that, as the Church of England continues to evolve its vision and strategy, the place of young people is recognised once again as being critical to our spiritual and numerical growth across church traditions. To achieve this we may need to cut the pie differently.

The divine paradox may be that if we want to see more vocations to the priesthood (among other things), we may need more youth workers and not more priests.

The Rev’d Steven Hilton is Assistant Curate at Manchester Cathedral. 

2 thoughts on “A younger church?

  1. Many thanks. I have been attending services around the country for a number of years, and it is often possible to attend services at 100 or so churches and scarcely see anyone under the age of 60, if not 70.

    Sunday schools and youth engagement were already in serious decline in the 1980s because most clergy born before 1939 had no idea how to bridge the generation gap and only a small number of parishes had the means to invest in youth workers. The fact that DBFs had been able to appropriate parochial assets after 1976 did not help.

    The coup de grace for the Sunday school movement was the liberalisation of Sunday trading in 1993. What few families there were at that point soon disappeared.

    The Church paid no attention to this, and did not alter its service patterns, which had been developed for the benefit of those attendees whose weekend timetables had been set before the 1960s. The Church ought to have been wise to the liberalisation of Sunday trading, since some of the big stores had been wilfully breaching the law after about 1985 on a large scale.

    The Church also failed to take account of the impact of every higher house prices and a liberalised leasehold market. High house prices meant that both parents had to work, meaning that Saturday became the de facto rest day and Sunday the day for activities and doing chores, or shopping. By the mid-1990s it was common for clergy to bemoan the absence of families from family services. The families had gone shopping or to Sunday morning football.

    Also, the higher cost of shelter made paid youth work increasingly implausible for any but the wealthiest parishes.

    Theological colleges signally failed to develop techniques and strategies for youth mission. Feeble attempts to appeal to the young in services only alienated the old and middle aged, and most parishes were, until about 2000, only offering a tedious monoculture of parish communions, many having only one service a week, or less in many rural places.

    Parochial investment in youth work was further stymied by the increasing burden of the parish share after 1998, when Synod allowed the Commissioners a free pass on prospective pension accruals. The burden of parish share increases all the time, crowding out investment for survival.

    This parade of existential blunders has resulted in a Church devoid of all but the old save in a few select churches, mostly evangelical, and either in university towns or affluent suburbs.

    One generation forgets. The next never knew.

    The Church could start off by holding genuine all age worship in the only slot in the weekend where church has little competition from other activities: 4 PM (when the shops close) and 6 PM when people are getting ready for the week ahead. I have been almost everywhere between Barnstaple and Broadstairs, and Barton upon Humber and Brighton, and the number of churches who do that in that slot can be counted on the fingers of little more than one hand.

    This is a massive, collective, failure. Chiefly a failure of imagination, by a profession which is too often shut up in its own clerical kraal.

    Asking for more youth workers in a massive property bubble is not overly plausible unless parishes (whose incomes have been savaged) are prepared to pay a large premium for a doubtful return. It savours of shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted.


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