Students show Archbishop they have 'Faith in the World'
Thursday 4th February 2010Around 350 A-Level students and their teachers from more than 60 schools joined the Archbishop of Canterbury at a Sixth Form conference in London one February afternoon.
Along with guest speakers Revd Richard Coles and Professor Elaine Graham, they were tackling the question, 'What does faith mean for society today?' It's a question that affects us all, but for these students of Religious Studies or Philosophy & Ethics A-Level, it's a question that brings their studies alive and puts them right in the centre of public life. For Archbishop Rowan, spending time with young people so he can listen and learn from their perspective as well as encourage them to keep on getting involved in the big issues of modern life is a real priority. There may be many demands on his time, but he described this conference as "one of the most important things I'll do this week".
Revd Richard Coles, priest and broadcaster got the afternoon off to a flying start - showing by example just how he tries to subvert people's stereotypes of what vicars are like. In a high speed tour of the problems of global poverty, discrimination and inequality, and the role of the media in shaping what people think about faith, he challenged everyone listening to rethink what it means to share responsibility in society.
Professor Elaine Graham from the University of Chester looked ahead at the next 10 years to think about which questions facing society need us to understand faith so we find answers we can share. Increasing diversity in religious practice, combined with the globalisation not just of business but of problems like climate change, means we need to find new ways of living with difference in our communities.
Taking responsibility Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, paid tribute to the role of faith in holding on to a full view of what it means to be human. Looking back at the history of the 20th Century, he described how he has been influenced by the writings of Etty Hillesum. She was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam at the time of the Nazi invasion. She thought herself very liberal and rational, yet was surprised to find how her faith became important to her as the world around her darkened. That experience left her with the view that somebody needed "to take responsibility for God", to show by their own life and actions that evil did not have the last word.
Setting the agenda
Then came the opportunity for the students to set the agenda. In a lively and thought-provoking question and answer session, they grilled the speakers on topics ranging from the place of Christian values in British politics, to how the Church can bring its traditions to people in the modern world. Nor did the students' contribution end there - each school had brought a poster connecting their A-Level studies to questions of how faith fits in contemporary society. It was a chance to test their ideas with the speakers and each other, as well as to gain valuable experience of contributing to a debate that helps shape our society - a debate in in Archbishop Rowan is particularly keen that their voices should be heard.
Trinity School, Belvedere, created an interactive board and invited other students to stick on an image that shows what faith means to them today. The Archbishop chose a picture of an African pastor holding a cross in an African village. He explained he had seen real life images like this in Sudan, "simply showing: 'this is what keeps you alive, what keeps your hopes strong', that's why I chose it." He was also invited to write his thoughts on what faith is: "Faith is believing you are loved & worthwhile to God even when there's darkness all round."
Reflecting on the afternoon, Archbishop Rowan said, "It's been a really exciting afternoon for me certainly and good to see young people really taking on the responsibility to clarify their thoughts and articulate their questions."