3rd International Conference on Children's Spirituality

Children and Faith

King Alfred's College, Winchester, UK 14 - July 18 2002

Conference report

Joyce E. Bellous
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

King Alfred's College offered a welcoming environment for The Third International Conference on Children's Spirituality, July 14-18, 2002. Arrangements were well organized and all aspects of the event appeared to flow effortlessly. We can thank the effectiveness of the convening team for the sense of ease we felt, in particular Cathy Ota, who is masterful with details and gracious in hospitality. Hospitable environments encourage informal conversation that these gatherings achieve at their best. The conversational life of the event was a high point. There were other aspects of the Conference that moved participants to reflect upon theory and practice in new ways. The individual sessions I attended were very good and I gained new insight from them. The Conference included plenary addresses from Clive Lawton, Rebecca Nye and David Tacey. Clive Lawton is a former Headteacher, a leader of an international Jewish adult education movement he helped to found in 1980, Senior Fellow in Jewish Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and Magistrate of the Harringey Bench and Greater London Youth Courts, to name some of his responsibilities. His civic and religious engagement expresses the vital interest he has in religion and education.

Through speaking to the group, Lawton demonstrated his concern for traditional practice and participation as a way of being Jewish. His focus on the education of children is to enable the young to belong in a family and to a community of others who willingly initiate and incorporate children communally so that a child's sense of belonging is sustaining, regardless of circumstances. Through telling his story he showed how a communal sense becomes a personal sense of belonging, as it did in his case.

Lawton's talk represents one end of a spectrum that typifies issues associated with children's spirituality and education. On one hand, educators are responsible for children who belong to a faith community and are well situated within it. Some children grow up with the assurance that their value to others is secure and see first-hand what being a person of faith and commitment signifies through participating in domestic and communal rituals that endure in their ongoing connections to the group. Not all the children enjoy a sense of belonging to an attractive and welcoming group. Rebecca Nye and David Tacey spoke from another perspective, pointing out that spirituality itself is a problematic term and that comfortable belonging to a tradition is not always possible, if our views differ from dominant views. There is a sense in the group that religious educators must account for the education of children who have no religious tradition or formal religious experience. One of the places the group tends to disagree is over the need for religious faith to be nurtured within a tradition. This is an important and vital disagreement that inspires careful thought and new insight and benefits everyone who attends.

Rebecca Nye in particular told a cautionary tale about spirituality and education. She teaches in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. To Nye, spirituality is hard to define and difficult to pin down as a human experience. The tendency, she thinks, is for religious educators to focus on the "nicer" aspects of spirituality and ignore its more dubious history. Relational consciousness, as she defines it, grounds spirituality and there are signs of an emerging Relational Paradigm that she encouraged participants to explore, particularly with reference to recent feminist critiques of psychological development. She has a continuing concern for the Church's role in spiritual formation that she believes is central to the discussion of spiritual growth. Her address expressed deep personal reflection, an aspect of the presentation that became one of the conference themes.

David Tacey was also cautious about the present condition of religion and spirituality. He teaches in the English Department at La Trobe University in Australia. He noted that the world is not religious and we are perhaps living in a collapsing landscape, as he put it. An interesting dynamic about speakers, presenters and participants at the Conference was the variation in their analysis of our current circumstance: for some religion and spirituality are endangered (perhaps religion more so) and to others, we live in spiritually hungry times in which many young people are asking for spiritual direction, even from secular agencies that have no idea how to give it. The spiritual hunger versus religious decline model provides a useful device for thinking about spirituality per se. To Tacey, spirituality has shot out into the world, loosed from its religious framework, it is now a mongrel breed contaminated by the world. For him, religion is a subset of spirituality and needs to be given its own discipline if it is uncommitted to any tradition. He noted that we have to study the world if we would investigate spirituality. The sessions interspersed around plenary speakers picked up many of the themes initiated by Lawton, Nye and Tacey. The individual presentations provided an excellent opportunity to discuss these themes more fully. I came away from the Conference refreshed with new ideas and practical methods for focusing, clarifying and intensifying my own teaching on spirituality and education with respect to children. I believe my sentiments were common. There is no question that the Conference does groundbreaking work in the growth area of educational theory and practice. It was exciting and productive to be in Winchester this year and I look forward to the next Conference in the summer of 2003.