Shaping debate on religion in public life.

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What Can Be Said About Religion & Young People? Ask Them!

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Guest blogger Rachael Shillitoe is a PhD student at Worcester University. Her research ‘Collective Worship: Foregrounding the Child’s Perspective’ is part of the wider Leverhulme Trust funded project, ‘Faith on the Air’.

Every day it seems, a new article or report emerges which questions the subject of religion and young people, and increasingly such attention focuses on the role of religion in schools. Matters of identity, practice, belief and faith are a constant source of media attention and a battleground for politicians and their political agendas. Such debates intensify when this involves religion and state education. Teeming with fears of indoctrination, questions over suitability and appropriateness of religion in schools; the increasing calls to protect children from radicalisation are a daily part of our media diet. But when reading such articles, how many times do we hear from the students themselves? With arguments and debates mainly based on “expert” perspectives and political agendas, are we really getting the whole picture or is there something drastically missing from such conversations?

When I started researching collective worship in schools, I was surprised by the lack of literature that demonstrated children and young people’s opinion on the subject. The voice of the child in research (perhaps especially in the study of religion) has for a long time been missing and at best marginalised. Now, this isn’t to say that the perspectives of adults are inherently wrong or inconsequential, but surely in order to have a well-rounded argument and proper insight into religion in schools (or religion and young people more generally), we need to listen to the very people we are talking about?

We need to take the opinions and thoughts of children and young people seriously and not rely on long held adult-orientated assumptions of what religion means to young people. These assumptions can sometimes be simplistic and neglect the nuanced and complex realities of young people’s everyday lives. Such accounts also run the risk of seeing children as purely vulnerable and passive subjects, rather than agents who have the capacity and ability to create their own meaning and affect change. Foregrounding the perspectives of children and young people forces us to push and change our ideas about religion in public life and re-evaluate the methods we use to study this topic.

Before starting my PhD, my career was mostly within youth work /social action sector. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young people on a variety of projects for the betterment of their community and wider society, and experienced first-hand the positive changes and action that young people are capable of when given the support and genuine opportunity to do so. The young people I worked with developed and implemented their own social action projects that made a positive difference to their communities. Such projects were youth-led which meant that from the very start, young people were given decision making power and provided with the resources which enabled them to develop and deliver innovative projects. A number of young people’s projects focused on issues relating to religion and community cohesion. Such projects resulted in a whole host of creative and dynamic activities, from community events to photography exhibitions. The impact was tangible; these projects enabled members of the community to come together. They were accessible, fun, engaging and allowed for increased participation on a big scale.

Working with young people on such projects not only resulted in positive and impactful projects, but also enabled them to develop the necessary skills and competencies required to continue to make a difference. I think that it is vital we engage with children and young people on such matters and provide them with the platform and tools to create social change. This way we can help to ensure that any changes or developments which affect young people are meaningful and put them first.

Increasing steps are being taken to make space and provide opportunities for young people to be heard. For example, in February I had the opportunity to attend RE for Real: A consultation on what works and what needs to change, organised by Westminster Faith Debates. This debate sought to explore the place and role of RE in schools and the various strengths and aims of the subject while considering the areas for development and change. A vital aspect of this event was the inclusion of young people who shared their thoughts and experiences of RE in school, as well as offering their ideas for the future; such as the importance of debates and discussions within RE. Research is also making positive steps in this direction. Within academia, there are some innovative and insightful research projects being undertaken. Much of this work is demonstrating the need to challenge assumptions as well as the need to understand the experiences of children and young people in the broader and often more complex context of their everyday lives.

Recently Nicola Madge, Peter Hemming, Kevin Stenson et al. explored the development of religious and non-religious identities among young people in Britain. This team of researchers utilised innovative methods which throughout the project ensured that the voices of the young people involved were heard. Uniquely, this study also pays attention to the importance and relevance of non-beliefs and how identities are negotiated and managed within a pluralistic and multi-cultural society. The findings of the Youth on Religion project, demonstrated the importance of personal agency and that the development or negotiation of non/religious identity is formed through a highly complex and nuanced interface between young people’s biological, physical and cognitive development, as well as their experiences of religious and non-religious beliefs and practices in a variety of settings and contexts. The study also notes the importance of liberal individualism, personal choice, rights, and tolerance for young people. Although the overall findings show a predominately positive picture of young people’s negotiation of faith and non-faith identity, the authors call for more attention to be paid to the experiences and opinions of young people.

Sociologist Grace Davie in the forward to ‘Youth on Religion’ stated that young people are ‘social scientists in their own right: their perceptions sharp and their comments interesting’. I couldn’t agree more. With religion in schools gaining increasing interest, it is crucial that we engage with and are listening to the views and opinions of children and young people, while ensuring that they have a genuine platform and opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on such matters. After all, who can tell us more about religion and young people, than the young people themselves?


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New Fellows Bring New Expertise & Experiences

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We are very pleased to announce the appointment of two new Associate Research Fellows – Dr Eve Poole and Tina Hearn. Eve and Tina join the Foundation’s four existing Fellows, adding a great deal of new knowledge and experiences to our team of expert academics and practitioners.

Eve Poole’s combined experience of studying theology and then business management, led to a faculty role teaching leadership and ethics at Ashridge Business School. She is Chair of Faith in Business at Ridley Hall and was a founding member of the Foundation for Workplace Spirituality. Eve has written extensively on the Church, capitalism and leadership. Eve said, ‘I am a huge fan of the William Temple Foundation, so it is a great delight and honour to be appointed Associate Research Fellow.’

Tina Hearn is a Social Policy Lecturer at the University of Birmingham where she teaches social theory, social policy and policy analysis, with particular interest in the roles of faith in politics and policy making. She has a strong commitment to widening participation and works with young people in schools and colleges across the West Midlands. With a background in social work, Tina has also been involved in community politics, focusing on equalities, racialisation and policy making. Tina said, ‘I am absolutely delighted to be able to work alongside the William Temple Foundation, and I hope that I am able to make a positive and creative contribution to the work of the organisation.’

William Temple Foundation Associate Research Fellows are established, or up and coming, experts working in the Foundation’s key areas. Fellows share in the Foundation’s aims and objectives and help to drive and shape our work and focus.

Tina and Eve will be officially appointed as Associate Research Fellows in October 2014, and will serve initially for a three year term.

 Read more about our Associate Research Fellows >>

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Foundation’s Director Instigates Major New Research Network

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The William Temple Foundation is part of a major new research network titled Re-imagining Religion and Belief for Public Policy and Practice. The AHRC funded interdisciplinary project will be managed by the William Temple Foundation’s Director of Research Dr Chris Baker, together with Prof Adam Dinham, Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmith’s, University of London.

Re-imagining Religion and Belief for Public Policy and Practice will act as an important discussion and networking hub, bringing together a diverse range of key thinkers from around the globe to analysis the role and impact of religion and belief on public life and policy.

A series of interviews with global experts will be followed by an intensive three day colloquium to be held in May 2015. A series of presentations at centres of research into religion, belief and public policy including Melbourne, Ottawa, Boston and Helsinki will further develop and share the research. The project aims to generate new theories and cutting-edge research which will be shared with UK government, civil servants, local authorities, academia, think-tanks, and beyond.

Chris Baker said, ‘I’m very excited to be leading this major new network, together with Adam Dinham. Some of the world’s most cutting-edge thinkers will be consulted during the project.  The network therefore, offers a unique and innovative new approach towards understanding the connections and interplay between religion and public policy, and the results of the project could have major impacts for both policy and practice.’

Re-imagining Religion and Belief for Public Policy and Practice will be officially launched in September 2014.

More William Temple Foundation news >>>

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Blurred Encounters in a Messy Church


A Victorian Gothic barn of a church, with most of the pews still anchored in place, on a cold wet Saturday afternoon in February. The parish in a multicultural inner city in the North of England has struggled to survive, but remains committed to evangelical mission and community engagement. Twice a term now we put on a Messy Church session, advertised mainly through the majority Asian Church primary school that stands next door. The vicar’s wife, a retired teacher does most of the work of planning and preparation. The vicar himself does most of the platform presentation, and the team of a dozen or so volunteer helpers are predominantly aged over 60, white and English.

From 3pm the church fills with parents and children, mostly families who attend the school, and maybe two or three who regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. It’s mostly women and children, though there are a handful of dads. There is a group of white working-class mums, some of them lone parents, who obviously know each other and spend a lot of time chatting and letting the kids get on with the activities. But as the number of people in the building rises to 90 we realise this is the most popular Messy Church since we started 18 months ago – and that over half of those attending are Muslims. One of the women is dressed in a black abaya, worn with a niqab – though she does remove the face covering when she has become comfortable with the social setting inside the church. Several other women and girls are wearing hijab (headscarf) and are in modest Asian dress.

One of the Muslim women who had encouraged friends to come is a single parent who first came along to a Messy Church a few months ago. We got to know her better through the midweek job club in the church hall. She had been unemployed, and destitute because she had been sanctioned for some trivial breach of benefit conditions by the job centre. We had helped her with food parcels, friendship and eventually to find a job in child care, and though she does not say she is a follower of Jesus or attend Sunday worship, she clearly feels herself to be part of the church family.

As usual Messy Church is a mixture of games, child-friendly Jesus songs, craft activities, a story and eating together. The vicar tells the story of Joseph, bringing out the importance of family and forgiveness. The crafts features coats of many colours, camels and silver cups.  People are invited to write their prayers for forgiveness on coloured paper cut in the shape and size of their hands and to stick these to a board at the front of the church. We then share in food which church people have brought along – sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and some fruit (up North this is known as a Jacob’s join). Probably we should have thought more clearly about making sure there were halal options, but vegetarian items mean everyone found something they were happy to eat. By five o’ clock the helpers were anxious to start clearing up but several people just wanted to stop and chat, so it took a long time before we could all go home, tired but encouraged.

How do we reflect on what was happening here? The situation has all the characteristics of what William Temple Foundation’s Chris Baker and John Reader have labelled a “blurred encounter”. There were a wide range of expectations and motives in the room. Christians were there with the hope of sharing the gospel. Children from a variety of backgrounds were just happy to be together and to have fun. Parents of various faith backgrounds and none were pleased to have something for the family to do on a cold February afternoon, that didn’t cost anything, and had some free food thrown in.

Sociologically speaking it seems that the parish church, though its close involvement with the school next door, is able to offer a safe social space for the banal everyday encounters on which social cohesion can be built. The school and the relaxed informality of Messy Church, linked with other community involvements such as the job club offer a milieu for building bridging social capital, crossing boundaries of communities which some commentators suggest are trapped in parallel lives. Religion is not in itself a barrier, but rather seems to offer common ground where trust can be built. It is significant too that Messy Church is an environment where women and children go first – perhaps typical male approaches to faith would be more dogmatic and divisive. There can be everyday good neighbourliness, friendship and trust across faith communities at this level. However it is also the case that in the local community there are examples of barriers and racisms directed against Muslims, while we also know of painful and hostile experiences when someone from a Muslim background “comes out” publicly as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Theologically one can also ask what is going on in this situation and how is God at work? A classic evangelical answer would be that to some degree at least, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached, if only implicitly, or at least proclaimed by deeds and attitudes. A more liberal approach would be to stress that the values of acceptance, friendship, trust, love and forgiveness are signs of the Kingdom of God, and of the Holy Spirit at work. Whether or not anyone discerns or names the name of Christ in this situation, God alone knows what is happening in people’s hearts, and He alone is the final judge of us all.

It might be worthwhile to reflect on NT Wright’s recent perspectives on Pauline theology where the emphasis is placed not so much on individual justification before God as on incorporation into the multicultural community of those who are “in the Messiah”. However, this raises many questions about how in such blurred encounters and ambiguous social and religious spaces, people may or may not find “salvation” — amidst all the competing definitions of that term one may come across in our theologically diverse environment.

Greg Smith is Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Read more blog posts:

”Never mind what Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society” by Chris Baker

“A Change of Climate for Political Theology” by John Reader

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