Comment Opinion & Features

How can we make younger people interested in religion?

The Divinity School, Oxford (wikimedia commons)

Helping Oxford recruit more theology students, giving parents what they need, and church-related injuries

I spent January 7 in Oxford, arriving as the church bells rang out at midday. It was “0th week”, so only a few students were about, cycling past, woollen scarves flying behind them, disappearing through college courtyards, as if through a CS Lewis cupboard.

Despite the many new modern buildings, and despite the tourist busloads, the pace of the town remains 19th century. I strolled rather than ran, looked about me as I made my way from the railway station, and even found myself reading the noticeboards outside the Ashmolean and the Oxford Playhouse – something I would never do in my usual London rush.

I was in town because I sit on the External Advisory Panel for Theology and Religion of Oxford University, and we were meeting to discuss how to attract more students, and more funds, to a subject that is no longer regarded as fashionable. The low numbers applying to read Theology and Religion seem preposterous, given that religion has never been more central to the politics of so many nations. How can we hope to understand Iran, Iraq or Israel, if we are religious illiterates?

Our ignorance is affecting the nation’s culture, too. Paintings of Nativity scenes, references to the Epiphany or even to the Trinity, and terms such as “prodigal son” and “good Samaritan” leave anyone under 18 looking puzzled. More people know what “Dry January” means than what Lent is.

I had hoped that having the national treasure Neil MacGregor explore faith with his marvellous Living with Gods programme on Radio 4 (and the accompanying British Museum exhibition) would reawaken the new generations’ curiosity about the sacred.

Alas, there is little evidence of that. The joint pressures of materialism and multiculturalism have ensured that religion remains a gap in too many young people’s education. This can raise some interesting questions, as one secondary school teacher found. Last year, she told me, a pupil asked her during Ramadan whether the fasting was in preparation for Easter.

I guess that is slightly better than children who think Easter is all about a bunny bearing chocolates …

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Setting up a charity should come with a health warning: “DANGER. Proceed with caution. You may lose your sanity.” Just over a year ago I decided to set up peer-led discussion groups to support parents struggling to raise happy, confident children. I soon grew convinced that charitable status was the only way to go: individuals, trusts and foundations are wary of giving to anyone who has not registered as a charity (the tax implications are part of the reason).

But, oh my word, do they make it difficult for you to become an official “do-gooder”! The red tape had me in knots, the small print made my head spin, the endless forms reduced me to tears. Thankfully, I found help in the shape of a generous and kind-hearted lawyer, Niall McAlister of the well-known firm CMS, who offered to help me pro bono.

Knowing that the registration process was under control allowed me to work out what a small charity could do to benefit parents. I interviewed a succession of headmasters – and was shocked by what they told me. Almost a third of five-year-olds arrive at school in nappies, unable to sit and pay attention, play properly or eat with cutlery. This has been shown to affect a child’s long-term prospects: the five-year-old who was not school-ready is more likely to grow into the nine-year-old bully, who is more likely to get excluded from school, join a gang and wind up behind bars.

Poor parenting is not confined to “chaotic” families. A Goldman Sachs banker confessed that when a doting auntie asked his five-year-old what she wanted to be when she grew up, the toddler answered promptly: “A client.” When Auntie looked puzzled, she elaborated: “Then Daddy would spend lots of time with me.”

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One corner of Britain where Christianity is still very much alive is south London. A great GP I know is part of a practice there, and has always been impressed by the size of the – mainly Afro-Caribbean – congregations that regularly and enthusiastically attend services at the Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist and Catholic churches near her. Equally impressive is the singing and dancing that goes on in their Sunday services, with swaying in the aisles and roof-raising choruses of “Hallelujah!”

Such fervour holds some dangers, however. One morning, one of her patients, a huge Jamaican mother of five, came to the practice with a sprained ankle. It had ballooned visibly and ached, and the poor woman moaned and wailed, in real pain. Her GP asked how the sprain had come about. “In church,” answered the woman, beaming: “I was rejoicing.”

Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle