Almost eighteen months ago, when we were still helping with the running of the Youth Group, Beth and myself took three of our young people up to Church House in Oxford to participate in the consultation process to choose the new Bishop of Oxford. Although it was never a guarantee, Ian MacDonald the Diocesan Youth Officer, who arranged the original gathering had always been keen to get the young people together again to meet whoever was appointed.
John Pritchard was announced as the new Bishop somewhat later than expected in early December 2006, and eventually was inaugurated in early June. Despite a packed schedule he managed to free up an entire Sunday afternoon, between an engagement this morning, and another engagement this evening to come along and spend time talking to and listening to the young people of the Diocese. As a former Youth Chaplain in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, maybe it’s too be expected that he would have time for young people, but it’s still really great that he made the time to come and spend time with them, and certainly the two young people from St James we took along really enjoyed their afternoon.
The afternoon kicked off with a game of Call My Bluff as an ice breaker – the young people versus the Bishop and one of the leaders. The words alternated between theological words and youth words – although interestingly the Bishop got a goodly number of the youth words, and the young people got most of the theological words too.
After that we got onto the questions. The young people split into two groups and using a copy of the points that had been raised in the original consultation they asked the Bishop about a number of the points that they had been concerned about eighteen months ago. Ian was on hand to keep things on track, and to ensure that the Bishop didn’t fudge any of the answers – however he didn’t have very much to do. Bishop John gave really good answers to all the questions – and some of them were pretty deep and searching. Important things that came out were that the Bishop, much like anybody else struggles with his faith at times, and also his clear focus on servant leadership.
Having answered the questions from the young people, the Bishop then asked four questions of his own. Firstly he asked how they keep their faith focused, then about what it was like being a Christian at school, thirdly a question about what they felt about the Church and finally what they saw as the big issues facing the world in the next century. As before, the youth leaders were there as enablers, and not to express their own views, and again with a broad bunch, the ‘not a Liberal’ point came up again – not surprisingly from the same young person who brought it up last year. This time it had evolved somewhat into a comment about the ‘liberal-minded secularism’ in the Church of England.
I think the reason why, from my standpoint towards the liberal end of the Church, it is frustrating is that the way it has come across both times, whether intentional or not is that essentially that ‘liberal’ is somehow a dirty word – and you really want to say, not least to defend our young people in the room, “Hey, some of us are Liberal!”. First time around the underlying point this young person was talking about was press coverage, and I disagree pretty strongly with the idea that it is liberal Christians that get all the press coverage – it doesn’t take long to turn up a gem like this article from the Telegraph in July with several Bishops describing the recent floods as God’s judgement on society.
However, I think it struck a chord somewhat more this time as only yesterday I’d had a discussion with someone else about how they wanted to reclaim the word ‘liberal’ in the Church – Brian Mountford says much the same in the first line of his book Perfect Freedom (which is a good and easily readable introduction to liberal Christianity if you want one). It is also worth having a read of the official history of the Church on the Church of England website when considering this as it clearly highlights the strong liberal tradition in the Church alongside the Catholic and Evangelical traditions – certainly in the Church as a whole you are going to meet liberals, anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, and to my mind that is one of the defining characteristics of the Church, that we have such a breadth! Bishop John highlighted this at several points during the afternoon, talking about how one week he’d be at a service where he could barely see the congregation through the incense, then the next week he is in a cafe Church environment, and the next it is totally different again. The key thing being that all share a common core of belief even if we disagree on other aspects. As I said, this wasn’t a situation where I could get into a big debate, but certainly I do think that we need to make our young people aware that there is a breadth of traditions within the Church, and that as they move on, and get involved with things at a Diocesan level they are almost certainly going to encounter other Christians, even other Anglicans who do quite legitimately believe different things to them. As such it is important to respect the position the other holds, even if it differs from our own.
Certainly what is interesting though, is that when Bishop John questioned the point further, it wasn’t press coverage that was mentioned this time. It seems that the frustration with the ‘liberals’ from the young person is much the same with the frustration that many in the liberal Episcopal Church have with the conservatives, that all of the current political arguing is distracting from the major issues – ironically something in common!
Just to underline the point, in answer to the fourth question the young people listed the major issues as poverty, war and Global Warming – all external world issues. As Bishop John said in response, when you consider that tens of thousands of people are dying daily due to poverty, it does put things into perspective. Unfortunately it’s not going to stop the Lambeth Conference spending an interminable amount of time and resources discussing something else…
Anyway, I’ve diverged from the topic somewhat… All in all it was a great afternoon, and a fantastic opportunity for both young people, and new Churchwarden’s like me alike to get to know our new Bishop a lot better. We really felt that Bishop John had been both open about himself, and also open to listen to the concerns of the young people. Ian is going to write up notes from the afternoon, which are going to go to the Bishop, and hopefully will be discussed further. Having said that, it does seem that his next meeting with Ian is going to be devoted to an introduction to the Veggietales as Bishop John hadn’t come across them…
I took a load of pictures, although since the majority of them include young people, you’ll find that the public gallery is a little slim! The full set of twenty-five is as usual available through Flickr to those with the relevant access, and pictures may appear in Diocesan publications online and offline over the next few weeks.