Today I attended the “Common Ground” event in Oxford, aimed at allowing a wider range of people to have some participation in the Shared Conversations about sexuality than the small number from each diocese who can participate in the official Conversations themselves. There is much that could be said about that event, but that is for another time.
What struck me the minute I walked in the door was this: the age profile. At 28, I was certainly among the youngest there, if not the youngest, and most of the other people there were (I would guess) at least 20-30 years older than me – a whole generation.
So, being who I am and doing what I do, I immediately thought “never mind my generation, what is being done to engage actual young people? as in, people aged 18 and under?” Where are their voices in the Shared Conversation process? My guess is, nowhere.
I was glad that I got a chance to pass that question on to those organising the event, and I hope I will hear back about what can and will be done to listen to young people on this issue. But I won’t be holding my breath.
And here’s why I think it’s vitally important that we do hear the voices of young people in these conversations: the difference even between my generation and those who are currently teenagers is enormous. In all sorts of ways: they are ‘digital natives’, I am not; they are growing up in an information landscape, and an educational environment, which is entirely unrecognisable from my own teenage years.
We keep being told in the discussion about sexuality, and it was said again today, that things are moving fast. Too right. If we’re only hearing from people my age and older, we’re already behind the times.
In the context of the Shared Conversations, perhaps the most significant difference between my generation and the one below it is the repeal of Section 28. The whole of my compulsory education took place under Section 28. And as a piece of legislation, it worked. Not once in my whole time at school was homosexuality mentioned. I studied Catullus at GCSE and The Great Gatsby at A Level, all without anyone mentioning the word “gay”. I never experienced homophobia at school – the concept of sexual orientation just might as well not have existed. And, like it or not, that education informs my engagement with the topic.
It isn’t like that for the young people I work with today. Their teachers are not censored in the way they handle issues of sexuality. Their schools are not banned from addressing the topic, and an increasing number of schools are doing a great job at presenting their students with a positive, affirming education about all sexual orientations, with a current drive towards more inclusive sex education. And, like it or not, that education informs these young people’s engagement with the topic.
There were people in the room today, many of them, who were educated when homosexuality was still illegal. And, like it or not, that education informs their engagement with the topic too.
But the world has moved on and is still moving on, faster than ever. If we exclude, or fail to intentionally include, the voices of young people in the Shared Conversations process, the church is missing out. Missing out on a different perspective, perhaps a challenging perspective, but also missing out on what God is saying to the church through our young people.