Bishop Grossteste College, Lincoln, UK. 12 – 16 July 2004
Rev. Dr. Nancy L. Cocks
The MacLeod Centre, Isle of Iona
The Fifth International Conference on Children’s Spirituality, held in Lincoln, UK, was my first in this series of gatherings. As a Christian pastoral theologian, I was both surprised and pleased by the diverse interests of the participants. I had expected to meet more colleagues from the network of theological schools of which I am a part, hoping that children’s spirituality claims a greater place in education for ministry these days. Instead I encountered a network of specialists primarily from the field of religious education whose interests have nurtured these conferences. In workshops and discussions, I discovered how much those of us working with children within particular religious traditions have to learn from those who work in school classrooms, opening up conversations on religious practices and exploring spiritual concerns with young people from widely varying backgrounds. One of the workshops I attended, Journeys from the Theatre of Learning presented by Sue Phillips, offered creative ‘religion neutral’ exercises used in the RE classroom to help students appreciate parallel rituals in different religions. Sue can demonstrate that the exercises themselves support her students’ spirituality. I was challenged to consider how her work might be valuable within religious contexts to help young people explore the meaning of the traditions of their own faith community from these engaging perspectives.
Conference conversations wove around issues raised by the keynote speakers. The first address by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman presented provocative statistics on children as consumers. Although I work on an isolated Hebridean island, I know the truth of his quip, All roads lead through the shops. Even here on the Scottish coast, many children who visit my centre express their identity through brand loyalty. They can’t understand how we ‘survive’ out here without the choices offered in the urban marketplace. Bauman argued that the soul of the child is under siege as childhood becomes a preparation for the ‘life-long task of selling the self’ through acquiring symbols of desire affirmed by the market. The second address by theologian Mary Grey expanded this analysis by offering insight into ‘childhood’s disenchantment’. Not only are children exploited as consumers in developed economies, they are victimised around the world as sources of cheap labour and as prostitutes. They are forced on to the street and into militias. Their humanity is manipulated and degraded. Grey’s concern for ‘the once and future child’ included a plea for adults to return to our senses and face up to our own addictions that are played out in the lives of children around us. She presented ‘Spirit’ as the symbol of the holy that connects human life to its depths and dynamic while also portraying its links with the non-human world. A liberation theology for children will celebrate Spirit as the energy in curiosity, play, joy, friendship and a child’s special relation with nature, core dimensions of a child’s spirituality.
On the third day of the conference, we visited The Aegis Institute, an organisation committed to research and education for the prevention of genocide, and The Holocaust Centre a few miles away. Our third theme address by Stephen Smith examined factors in the rise of genocide and possibilities for intervention as a means of prevention. Then we heard the witness of two survivors. One fled Uganda when persecution in the 1980s targeted his family and eventually, him. One lived through the Holocaust in concentration camps, first in the Netherlands and then in Poland. Each told remarkable stories, moving in different ways. What made their testimony so pertinent was the fact they survived their ordeals as children – one as an adolescent, one as a young child. Mary Grey’s insights into ‘Spirit’ were dramatised in the ingenuity and courage of these men, each of whom embodies the remarkable resilience of which children are capable. Our conversations about children’s spirituality were recast for me in light of the danger and horror some young people face. That light is both stark in its intensity and illuminating in its truth about the strength of children’s spirit.
Having to choose between so many fascinating workshops created my chief frustration in the conference. There were opportunities to look at approaches to religious education responding to particular contexts including Hong Kong, South Africa and North America alongside reports on current research with an intriguing variety of themes. A rich diet from which to select just a few offerings! The conference included a discussion on future plans and the decision to keep using the phrase ‘Children’s Spirituality’ as a focus. I appreciate this choice because that phrase maintains an openness to all who share a deep interest in the spiritual life of young people, whatever discipline or background shapes us. At a time when inter-disciplinary conversations are enriching many fields, The 5th International Conference on Children’s Spirituality maintained a unique venue for significant conversations to continue.