On Friday 22 Feb at Church House, the Church of England Synod debated Growing Faith, an initiative to better understand recognise and appropriately respond to the growth of early faith in children, following on from findings that most members of the Church of England came to faith before the age of 12. You can watch the discussion at Synod here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBEgFzH9uz0?t=93m11s .

Prior to Synod, the House of Bishops had discussed the initiative and early findings in research from Canterbury Christ Church University informed that debate. An early findings report published in December faith-in-the-nexus-briefing-paper (1) comes from the ongoing Faith in the Nexus project led by our Senior Research Fellow, Dr Ann Casson. The project is working with church primary schools in England who actively encourage children’s exploration of faith and the spiritual dimension of life, and recognise that a fruitful school, home and church relationship is key to this.

As the research project reaches the midway point, a narrative is emerging that is a compelling indication of the critical issues affecting this relationship. The research has found evidence of a significant impact on church and school relationships when the lead clergy person at the local church does not positively engage with the local school, or is not confident about communication with children and families. This causes considerable disruption and presents a major challenge to supporting an exploration of faith and the spiritual dimension of life by children, which is sustainable beyond school. Several reasons were given for a lack of active support or engagement from a local church community.

  • The local church had been closed or merged; there is no regular worshipping community or the community is small and elderly. A long interregnum can cause what is often a fragile link dependent on ordained clergy to become broken.
  • A reluctance by the church community to engage because of a perception that the school families and/or the school staff were non-church going or non-Christian or non-practising Christians. This reason to explain a
    lack of involvement was offered by local clergy, clergy from neighbouring parishes or other denominations; head teachers; and staff.
  • The many other pressures on ordained clergy time, such as funerals or for example a presence on the school gate in the morning is not possible if you are committed to celebrating a morning service at that time each morning

Church primary schools have adopted innovative solutions in response to this challenge. In cases where the relationship is broken one school uses the church building for worship on the ‘vicar’s day off’, another school celebrates worship in church with a minister from a neighbouring parish or another denomination. Schools have focussed on strengthening relationships with

  • ministers of other local denominations, such as Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal church representatives such as churchwardens, lay readers,
  • local religious communities such as local convent or ecumenical Open the Book teams, where a vibrant intergenerational relationship has developed.

I welcome the initiative in the Church of England to look again at how it acknowledges the faith of children and hope that the links between Church and school and home can be considered afresh so that children of all backgrounds can be better supported in their flourishing spiritual life.

The next stage of the research (Jan-Dec 2019) will explore the why, the rational underpinning these approaches and consider what is required to further support church primary schools in this endeavour. 

Dr Bob Bowie, Director of NICER