The Times May 08, 2006
Church seeks spirituality of youth . . . and doesn't like what it finds
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
THE Church of England has debunked the widely held view that young people are spiritual seekers on a journey to find transcendent truths to fill the “God-shaped hole” within them.
A report published by the Church today indicates that young people are quite happy with a life without God and prefer car boot sales to church.
If they think about church at all, the images young people come up with are “cardigans”, “sandals and socks”, “corrupt”, “traditionalist” and “stagnant”.
The report has prompted an “urgent” wake-up call from the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who writes of a large “mismatch” between the Church and the views of those aged 15 to 25. He says: “The research suggests young people are happy with life as it is, that they have felt no need for a transcendent something else and regard the Church as boring and irrelevant.”
The report, Making Sense of Generation Y, was funded by The Mercers’ livery company and written by academics and clergy including the Bishop of Maidstone, the Right Rev Graham Cray, who chairs the Soul Survivor Trust, a successful youth ministry. It is released today by Church House Publishing, the Church of England’s publishing arm.
As former Principal of Ridley Hall theological college, Bishop Cray commissioned interviews and group discussions with more than 120 young people.
The report comes in the context of a Britain awash with symbols of the supernatural, such as glow-in-the-dark crosses, Kabbalah bracelets and Harry Potter books.
Yet the Church continues to atrophy. The number of young people attending has been halved since 1979. Fewer than 7 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 and 5 per cent of those aged 20 to 29 attend church. The number of children in Sunday school is less than a tenth of what it was in 1930.
The authors began their work believing that even if the young had little knowledge of Christianity they would still have religious or spiritual yearnings. They were shocked to find that they did not.
In the pilot interviews they included a picture of Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross but had to drop it from the main interviews because it failed to produce any response at all except one: “Oh, my grandmother has that picture.”
Discussions about Buffy the Vampire Slayer failed to open out into talk about “alternative spiritual realities”. Clubbing, rather than being a way of “transcending oneself and touching a deeper reality”, was simply a good night out. Even discussions about the September 11 attacks failed to elicit any mention of religion.
Nevertheless, young people do not feel disenchanted, lost or alienated in a meaningless world. “Instead, the data indicated that they found meaning and significance in the reality of everyday life, which the popular arts helped them to understand and imbibe.” Their creed could be defined as: “This world, and all life in it, is meaningful as it is,” translated as: “There is no need to posit ultimate significance elsewhere beyond the immediate experience of everyday life.” The goal in life of young people was happiness achieved primarily through the family.
The researchers were also shocked to discover little sense of sin or fear of death. Nor did they find any Freudian guilt as a result of private sensual desires. The young people were, however, afraid of growing old.
In their advice to the Church, the report’s authors say that the first thing to do is “avoid panic”. It recommends means of reconnecting with young people such as through alternative worship forms, traditional buildings, church schools and civic occasions where Anglican clergy often officiate.
However, the authors also note the obvious contrast between the view of Generation Y that life is generally benign with the figures showing rises in eating disorders, substance abuse, teenage suicide, bullying and sexual abuse.
The authors conclude: “We live in an instant culture, which cannot be reached by instant missionary tactics.” And the desire for happiness is valid and should not be criticised by clergy. “It can only be outclassed by a Christ-like way of life, for in him alone is true happiness to be found.”
Sinead Berrigan, 19: “I don’t believe in God and I think, to a certain extent, religions are a waste of time. I don’t like being told how to live by a set of religious rules. I just want to be happy”
Pascale Buehler, 16: “I don’t believe in God, but I don’t think religions are a waste of time. For some people religion is important. Happiness is more important for me, because I want to enjoy the life I live now”
Xavier Laus, 24: “I believe in God because I am Catholic, but I am not a very strict Catholic. I don’t think that religions are a waste of time, but my own happiness is more important to me than my religion”
Jasmin Aregger, 17: “I don’t believe in God and I don’t live according to any religious rules. Religion is a waste of time. I don’t believe in a life after death, so for me happiness is more important”