Church of England Diocese of Guildford Dunsfold

WHY THE CHURCH MUST DO MORE TO WELCOME THE YOUNG - BY THE ARCHBISHOP OF YORK

In this past year churches have experienced growth through two things: worship and service. It has been unexpected and counter intuitive.

But there has been a huge development of online services of one sort or another. New congregations have been established. New people have been drawn into the life of the Church.

At the same time, churches have been in the forefront of working with others to alleviate suffering, be it debt relief, food poverty, homelessness or just those acts of kindness such as collecting the prescription for an isolated person.

I don’t think there has ever been a moment of fundamental renewal in the life of the church without a bias to the poor. It will be the same for us today. After all what are we saving the parish for, if not the service of the world?

But it won’t just be parish. It will also be school and prison chaplains, and, I hope and pray, a renewal of the religious life. This is happening.

I am hugely inspired by the young people I meet who are forming small Christian communities. I thank God for the more established communities such as the Society of St Francis (and others) who continue to work and serve in some of our poorest parishes.

And isn’t the real test of the Government’s levelling-up agenda what it brings to the disconnected, the marginalised, those who lack opportunity, those who don’t have access to the best of education, or often even a dentist?

And to do all this, unity will be all important. A church of variety and diversity needs deep roots in its tradition, deep roots in Christ, Only then will it bear fruit. This is unity within the Church of England.

However, I am less and less confident that theologians and church leaders will achieve this unity, though the vital work of ecumenical dialogue must continue and has borne some fruit. Unity will be achieved because it is the prayer and the heart’s desire of all of us.

When I was Bishop of Chelmsford, one of the best things I did was pray each month with other church leaders across Essex and East London, I think it did more for unity than any amount of other meetings.

And it overflowed into acts of joint service and witness. I intend to do the same in Yorkshire – this is how the world will come to believe.

I also dream of a church that is younger and more diverse. The average age of people in our congregations is 61, that is 21 years older than the average age in the population.

Many of our congregations don’t look like the communities they serve. We need leadership in the church that is more diverse, inclusive and representative.

When I was a parish priest, there were no children in church on the first Sunday morning. My wife was the youngest person in the congregation. I was the second youngest person. They were lovely people but they didn’t really want a vicar, they wanted a hospice chaplain.

The turning point for me and for them was recognising that things could change. But that change would only come about when that change came from all of us. And we started to become again a church which looked outwards.

On my final Sunday there were 30 or 40 children and a thriving youth group from which two members went on to be ordained. I will always remember this as being one of the most joyful parts of my ministry.

And when I was Bishop of Chelmsford as I looked round the table at my first staff meeting we were all white and nearly all male. And we together had to own the fact that this was holding back our mission, diminishing our leadership and not looking like the people we served. Change is possible.

But these kind of changes are not driven by race politics nor helped by culture wars, but, again, arise out of our life in Christ.

So yes, I do dream that we will put more energy and resources into working with children and young people and schools and families and that we will find resources to combat racism, support racial justice and enable the church on Earth to look more like the church in heaven and serve those diverse communities that make up the smorgasbord of British life today.

Young men dream dreams, old men have visions, but much of the problem is that often middle-aged men are in charge.

So let’s include the young around the table, and may those of us who are not young and not yet that old, be brought to that purity of heart and poverty of spirit whereby we too are children of God.

Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York