11th International Conference on Children's Spirituality

The Politics of Children's Spirituality: Identifying and Responding to Social Practices that Put Children at Risk

University of Winchester, UK, 1-5 August 2011

Conference report

Ruth Wills
University of Winchester, UK

The 11th International Conference on Children's Spirituality was held in early August 2011 at the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, USA. This beautifully peaceful venue became for five days, the home of almost fifty friends, old and new, who spent time listening to each other and engaging in thoughtful discussions around this subject which is important for so many of us. The area historically has been part of both the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, therefore it seemed fitting that the theme was 'The Politics of Spirituality.' Through the week delegates were able to continue the ongoing conversation of eleven years and more: how research and experience within the spiritual agenda might become a political influencer for policy and practice.

Key Note addresses stimulated our thinking on these matters. Gene Roehlkepartain of the Centre for Spiritual Development (USA) opened the conference by presenting the key findings of a global research project into the spirituality of young people. Whilst this study indicated that an overwhelming number of young people believe in a spiritual dimension to life, it also revealed how little schools, religious organisations and youth organisations seemed to play in the development of their spirituality. This reality of the young people's lives, featuring what seems to be a personal not institutional spirituality, formed the backdrop to the following two Key Notes.

Mark Chater from a UK educational context, focused on the politics of spirituality in terms of curriculum design and introduced us to the notion of 'embedded spirituality.' Here a desired spiritual agenda infuses all aspects of teaching and learning to promote wellbeing, listening to children and process not product driven methods. This is yet a dream, not a reality. Our conference convener Karen-Marie Yust continued by locating current US educational practice in an epistemological framework, identifying the threats that policies such as standardized testing and a consensus approach to knowledge pose to spiritual knowing. It was noted amongst delegates that a similar spiritual crisis in education is being played out in other countries represented, from Canada through South America, Europe and to Australia.

This then prompted the final Key Note plenary when Adrian Gellel asked us to consider how far our conference had addressed the issues for spirituality within our respective contexts and disciplines. He also outlined the challenges for the future: for the International Association of Children's Spirituality as network of influence to be more political, more inter-disciplinary and more effective towards the trialogue among theory, policy and practice.

What the conference highlighted for me, was the richness of spiritual work represented by even a relatively small group of delegates, representing a range of philosophical views and contexts. Through collegiate papers and workshops we were inspired by stories of spiritual work such as that carried out amongst gangs in Venezuela, within bereavement situations, within situations of parental divorce and through literature, movement, music, film and the symbols of the Tarot. Each presentation reflected the power of the spiritual to transform young lives and each was inspiring and at times moving.

The Annual General Meeting of the Association for Children's Spirituality was also held during the conference. At this meeting, it was confirmed that Marian de Souza of Australia Catholic University, Melbourne be the association's Chair. Ruth Wills was nominated and accepted as Secretary with Tony Eaude continuing to develop the website this year. Greatful thanks were given to Jackie Watson who stood down as Secretary after three years of hard work, which included increasing membership, consolidating a constitution and keeping members up to date with news. It was agreed at this meeting that the association would be renamed the 'International Association for Children's Spirituality', in keeping with the journal and conferences. News was also given of a sister website, through which members can now take part in online discussion. Once registered, the challenges raised by Adrian Gellel can be discussed by members by visiting www.childrenspirituality.net and continuing to 'groups' and 'IACS member's discussion group.'

Conference delegates are grateful to Karen-Marie Yust for convening a stimulating conference, organising a range of delicious meals, arranging thought provoking visits to a local school and Islamic Centre and for driving some of us around the historical and political sites of Richmond. Photographs and Key Note information are available in the member's area of the IACS website.

The conference for 2012 has been announced. It will take place in Norwich, UK between 1-5 July.