6th International Conference on Children's Spirituality

Intergenerational wisdom and modern construction of knowledge

Rabat, Malta, 12 - 16 July 2005

Conference report

Howard Worsley
Director of Education, Southwell Diocese

The location of the conference on the ancient island of Malta, with its strong Catholic traditions (98% of the populace) and hosted in a Catholic seminary, proved to be a crucial backdrop to this conference in more ways than one. Looking out from the ornate and lofty iron gates of the seminary, we could see the ancient walled city of Mdina to our left, scattered farmsteads to our right and a broad plain in front of us, dropping down a steep slope and continuing to the Mediterranean.

From this orthodox haven of Christianity we felt free to explore spirituality in diverse ways - strongly reflecting on the emergence of a humanistic spirituality that consciously understood itself outside the trappings of conventional religion, as well as charting the movement of more religious expressions of spiritual inheritance. For myself, it was the juxtaposition of an emerging secularist confidence alongside a continuing Christian presence that provided the moments for the richest reflections. It has been a genuine dialogue between traditions and disciplines.

It was clear from day one when Jacqueline Watson was brave enough to offer her paper on 'A reasonable spirituality' that we were going to wrestle creatively. She argued convincingly the case for an atheistic spirituality. She was well complemented by Clive Erricker's keynote talk two days later, entitled 'Children's spirituality and the aporia of faith'. In layman's terms, this meant 'A study of children's spirituality when faith is deemed to be beyond grasp'. He traced faith by way of Kierkegaard and Derrida to note the paradox and destabilisation of knowledge.

In contrast to these spirited offerings were research papers looking specifically at spirituality from a Christocentric position or charting it entirely within the confines of denomination. One seminar took as its definition of spirituality 'the conscious relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the indwelling of the spirit in the context of the community of believers'. Indeed, the first keynote speaker for the conference was a biblical studies expert from Malta, Dr Frendo, who offered a scholarly exposition of how traditional knowledge was reflected and developed in the Book of Proverbs.

The tension between the religious and the secular was always generous and engagements were made in a frank and scholarly way that 'apologised for hurt caused, but not for content'.

As in other years, there was a mixture of papers that might be classified as educational, empiric or literary searches. For those who were not able to attend, and for the future development of the dialogue, a publication of the conference papers is being proposed. As ever there was a variety of offerings of papers, spanning post-doctoral to master's level and proving pragmatic as well as reflective.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of this, the 6th International Conference, was the development of the accepted formula of organisation - namely having a rest day on the third day. After the Tuesday and Wednesday spent in acclimatising to the island and to the conference, we spent Thursday on an extended trip that included a visit to the catacombs on Malta, and a boat trip over to the south island (Gozo). Here we swam in a large rock pool fed by a covered rocky inlet that siphoned out the power of the waves and allowed us the illusion of danger as we swam in the swell. On this night, as on every night, the group ate out at a restaurant by the sea edge, and over a glass of wine developed the debates and discussions that inevitably result from the mixing of a dozen nationalities and a wide variety of religious and secular worldviews.

The result of this day off was what allowed us space to process emerging thoughts. A personal example of reflection on this day took place for me in St Paul's Catacombs. As I'd walked there, I was engaged in a conversation about children's worldviews and the possibility of a universal faith. Entering the cold darkness of the vaults where early Christians had been buried and where the mass had formerly been celebrated, I felt the need for some space and slipped away from the group. Down some distant alley, I found another grotto touched by a shaft of light in which I could make out a solitary tree root from the upper surface. I sat down and wrote the jotting of a poem.

Jewel of rock in an emerald sea,
Keeper of Malta's bleak memory,
Unlock your limestone secrets
Whispered beneath the ground.

Burrow the rock to this tomb.
Place for the ancient Mass,
Where now a lone tendril
Reaches down to the cave.

Cracking the rock to make contact
From the bright life world above,
Connecting lost presence
To the upper surface nearby.

Splint'ring the rock to haunt me
In glittering darkness below,
Shatt'ring still moments
With echoes of movement above.

Caressing the rock to soothe me,
Barred in religious reflection,
Reminding me shoots of the Spirit
Are seeking fresh routes from the past.

As the conference came to an end, I left enriched with the knowledge of other strands of thought, other references to check, new contacts to email and new ideas for research. I also left confident that next year's dates (23 - 27 July 2006 in Winchester) were secure in my diary. I was left aware that the dialogue was in full flow and that we were far from closure with issues surrounding children's spirituality.