Do I have to write about Brexit? Really? Come on, if you want 800 words on something I don’t really get but understand the importance of to keep up appearances I’d rather try penal substitution, CCPAS’ rebrand (yes, I know, thirtyone:eight) or children’s work. Sure, it’s the dominant issue of the day and will have an untold impact on the children and young people we work with, but…well, we don’t really know that much yet, do we?
I was recently asked by someone within my organisation about the impact Brexit would have on our team’s work. I was uncharacteristically quiet. “Erm…well, it might be trickier to go on overseas trips to Europe, I guess. Although it’s still a bit up in the air as to the exact difference Brexit will make to overseas travel, so maybe it’s best not to include that. But apart from that, well, oh, erm, pen pals?”
I don’t wish to treat Brexit lightly here, really I don’t. So why is it, when I’ve spent countless words in the pages of this magazine explaining how stuff that is dominating the news headlines has something profound to say to our ministry, I’m unable do this on the subject of Brexit? Why can’t I pull out a punchy 800 words on what leaving the EU means to our children and young people? OK, here’s a plan. I’m going to suggest two quick reasons why we don’t know how to tackle Brexit and then reflect on how the conditions surrounding Brexit are impacting youth and children’s ministry.
Firstly, we haven’t got a clue what it means. ‘Britain leaving the EU’ might sound like quite a simple headline, but the intricacies are complicated enough to confuse, well, just about everyone.
So without genuine details, or at least comprehensible details, it becomes quite a vague, pointless conversation.
They know it’s happening but they have no voice in the conversation
The second reason is perhaps more important: Brexit is, to put it mildly, a touchy subject. The result was, I mean you know this already, incredibly close, yet despite losing it seems easier for those who voted ‘remain’ to express their views in public. It’s confusing, messy and difficult to talk about without upsetting someone or sounding smug. So in the world of youth and children’s ministry, it feels (note the word ‘feels’, not ‘is’) as though it’s best avoided.
But here’s the thing. While the details of Brexit are yet to have a huge impact, the cultural conditions created by the last two years of political discourse are having an impact in two ways: by causing uncertainty and voicelessness.
Have you ever had that feeling when you know someone is talking about you? Maybe they’re on the other side of a room shooting furtive glances in your direction, or perhaps you walk into a room and it falls silent. Disconcerting, isn’t it. It’s certainly unpleasant.
It feels like that is what’s happening at the moment. Our children and young people’s future is being decided. They know it’s happening but they have no voice in the conversation, and very little idea about what the future will entail. So they’re waiting. Waiting for details, for titbits, for a smidgen of an idea of what their parents and grandparents have signed them up to, like waiting for exam results that someone else has taken but will change their lives. The future is uncertain and out of their control. And for a generation riddled with anxiety about the present, how much fear is this creating for the future?
They’ve had no say in proceedings. Forget the public’s mind changing on the subject of Brexit, the number of young people who have turned 18 since the vote took place might be enough to swing the result back the other way. But the decision about their future was made without them. In a culture that consistently marginalises the voices of young people, this only exacerbates the feeling that they’re not being listened to. So, irrespective of the actual impact of Brexit, a whole heap of generational damage has already been done.
So how do we respond? If your politics lean you in that direction, you could protest, counter-protest and demand whatever flavour of Brexit you desire. But more importantly than that, ensure that all you do for children and young people doesn’t fall into the same trap. Are your conversations about those you work with held on the other side of the room while they glance in your direction? Do they stop once teenagers enter the room? Or are young people central in your conversations about them? Do our churches quash or elevate the voices of the youngest among them? Are their contributions genuinely meaningful or tokenistic
In a society where young people’s voices aren’t heard, the Church has a chance to redress that balance and give them a platform. We have a chance to channel their passions and interests, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by them. The country missed that chance. Our churches cannot afford to do the same thing.