It’s no secret that the number of youth attending Synods is low. Listening to a bunch of older people talk finances and strategic plans was never going to make it onto a teenager’s top ten ways to spend a weekend, so it was always going to be a hard ask.
That being said, youth care about social justice. The high youth participation in causes such as the 40 Hour Famine and the fairtrade movement is heartening evidence that youth want to follow in the steps of Christ and clothe, feed and minister to those in need.
Compare this with Synod. Synod is a way to influence the direction and behaviour of a Church that has concern for the poor and marginalised as a central tenet. It’s an instruments by which positive social change can be set in motion. However, youth, with all their passion for social justice, aren’t exactly filling up Synod venues.
So why the disparity? Why so little youth interest?
Part of the reason is that some youth aren’t interested in meetings and constitutions regardless of potential and cause, but this is certainly not all of them.
Another reason is youth not knowing that Synod exists. A motion at this session of Christchurch Synod looks to address this by encouraging ministry units to educate their youth on Synod and commit themselves to finding a youth representative. This is a step in the right direction.
Another part of the puzzle for those who might otherwise be inclined to go is that most youth representatives do not get a vote, which can make their participation look rather token. A number of dioceses are currently exploring the possibility of granting all youth representatives a vote. This is a vital discussion for the Church to have and it’s encouraging that dioceses are having conversations around it at present.
But there is a fourth reason that I believe raises a wider question for the Church. There is a perception that little actual change results from Synod motions. This perception can lead youth to dismiss Synod as irrelevant, which doesn’t exactly encourage youth attendance. To check if this perception was substantial or just cynicism some youth from the Diocese of Christchurch conducted a survey asking around 50 ministry units about their responses to past motions they had supported. The number of ministry units happy to respond was a positive sign. The actual results weren’t quite as encouraging.
One example was a 2006 motion encouraging all ministry units to become fairtrade. As mentioned earlier, many of the youth I know support the fairtrade movement as it guarantees producers in third-world countries prices that equitably compensate their efforts, rather than perpetuating the poverty cycle in the name of cheaper prices for consumers.
Becoming fairtrade is not difficult. It involves providing fairtrade tea and coffee instead of, or as an option over, their non-fairtrade alternatives and promoting the use of these products. Here are the results of the survey:
Of the 12 respondents, none became fairtrade, only a quarter often buy fairtrade products and two do not buy fairtrade products at all.
This is disheartening.
Yes, the motion was ten years ago. However, the fact remains that none of these ministry units follow the motion precisely and two don’t even buy any fairtrade products at all. This indicates that the motion achieved very little.
Another motion, this one in 2009, asked ministry units to approach their youth and provide mentoring to those who request it. It produced the following results in practice:
Of the ministry units with youth, a third have not been asking them whether they would like mentoring. The trend appears to be that Synods make aspirational promises that struggle to translate into effective action.
From a youth perspective, how do you inspire youth who might want to go to Synod to take part in shaping their future Church when the chance that their participation actually makes a difference in an area they care about is slim? Finances, working groups and canons can mean little to youth. Actual change in areas that matter to youth, resulting from debates, votes and conversations that include them, however, would inspire them.
Please note that this is not a criticism of the processes that shape Synod, or its constitutional framework. Nor is it an attack on the discussions on financial, strategic and doctrinal matters that Synod must discuss. It is an observation that these are less tangible and salient topics to youth, many of whom lack the clerical, financial or experiential knowledge to fully engage with them. What youth have to offer at Synod is not ideas on how safety policies should be amended, or questions scrutinising complex Bills. But youth have a passion for the least, the last and the lost, and the energy to fight for their needs relentlessly. To get young people to Synod, we need to recognise this passion and encourage it, not least by ensuring that motions result in actual change.
I have two suggestions. First, those attending Synod should not accept aspirational motions too easily. Debate them. Counter them. Bring any opposition against them out onto the Synod floor. Give yourselves no leeway to shrug them off in vestry meetings as too hard, too costly or referring to someone else. Build a culture that expects ministry units to turn motions into action.
Second, we should become a fairtrade Church. This alone wouldn’t solve everything, but it would show that the Church cares about the social justice causes that youth do.
In the end, the message is clear: if Synod started taking youth seriously, then youth would do the same for Synod.