Safeguarding young people and the environment vital, Archbishop Clarke

Archbishop Richard Clarke highlighted two important issues which he stressed were vital in the church’s mission to young people. He also outlined a joint initiative he would be making with the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh.

Speaking to the Armagh Diocesan synod, the Archbishop said –

I want now to talk briefly about two subjects of importance. These are not issues that we can solve instantly, but they are rather matters that we might describe as “slow burn”. They both revolve about a single concept – that of safeguarding.

Safeguarding has become so much a mantra in the context of safeguarding children and young people, and also those who are older but who may be at risk or vulnerable in some way, that the danger is that we may become so weary of the expression and by the demands imposed by safeguarding protocols that they fail to see that we are talking about Christian duty and not simply legal obligation. Yes, it is crucially important that we take great care to fulfil necessary legal requirements. Mention will be made later in this synod of the wise decision by the Diocesan Council to appoint a “Safeguarding and Compliance Officer” for the diocese to ensure that parishes and the diocese itself will be compliant with safeguarding regulations and associated issues. We will also be hearing, after the lunch break of other aspects of the good safeguarding of young people. The appointment of a safeguarding and compliance officer is not, we would want you to understand, to “police” parishes, but rather to give a security to those who perhaps feel that they may, inadvertently, be missing some important aspects of safeguarding protocols. I am delighted that the diocese is taking this necessary step.

We need to realise that there is more to safeguarding than ensuring that we stay within the law and follow the correct procedures, absolutely vital although all of this certainly is. It is our duty as Christian disciples to keep those for whom we have responsibility safe from hurt or harm of any kind, but we must not fall into the trap of giving up on ministry with young people, through fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. Children and young people also need role models, they need leadership, and they need to know that there is a community – the community of the Church – that truly cares for them, treasures them and wishes them well.

We are living in a world and a surrounding culture of utter confusion, of cynical manipulation and of downright untruth. Even though she was writing half a century ago, the German–American philosopher Hannah Arendt might well have been talking about today when she wrote that when we are being lied to constantly, it is not that people believe the lies but that nobody believes anything any longer. In such a world we owe it to young people (and to adults who also may be particularly vulnerable to cynical and evil manipulation) that we do not shrink back from all interaction with those who are easy prey to forces of darkness and wickedness. This is the other side of safeguarding and it is, equally, a Christian duty.

But today we need to be aware of another safeguarding – that of the world in which we live. The young climate change activist Greta Thunberg used a haunting phrase recently in the United States when she said that “future generations will not forgive us” for destroying their inheritance – this beautiful world – by our selfishness, indifference and laziness. Yes, we have a duty to future generations, but we have duty to God here and now. The fifth of the Anglican “Marks of Mission“is that the Church must strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. In a recent survey of Armagh parishes relating to the Church of Ireland’s Inter–Diocesan Learning Experience project, it became clear that although real efforts are being made in many parishes to promote most of the other Marks of Mission, we were definitely failing in this fifth mark – safeguarding the creation over which God has made us stewards. It is not simple trendiness that should impel us to take seriously our responsibilities to the created order. When we treat this earth as a commodity for our selfish use, we are treating God as a commodity. When we look at the world around us with casual condescension rather than awe and humility, we are treating God with utter contempt. I spoke earlier about young people and our responsibility to them. We should perhaps reverse this axis, and suggest that young people will not regard adult Christians with any seriousness if they see us flagrantly abusing the earth in which we live, while still asserting hypocritically that the earth is a solemn trust lent to us by the God whom we claim to believe is our Creator. Perhaps we can capture the respect and the imagination of a younger generation if we share with them a real concern for the life of this world.

It is not a quick or short–term solution, far from it, but I would ask you to think for a moment about a project, immensely practical and with direct application for both the local and the global contexts. Forty–six per cent of Africa’s land is degraded, which effects the livelihoods of almost two–thirds of the population of Africa. Sixty million people will be forced to leave the degraded areas of Africa within the next two decades. To seek to mitigate the damage being done to the climate of Africa – in many cases, incidentally, by outside business interests – a project began in 2007 to build a “Great Green Wall” – not of concrete but of trees right across Africa from Senegal on the Atlantic to the Red Sea at Djibuti. This would be a belt of trees 8,000 miles in length and nearly ten miles in width across thirteen countries, indeed a Great Green Wall..

Linking with this could capture the spiritual imagination of young people, a venture calling us in Christ to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to respect the earth which God has lent to us in trust. Our neighbour here in Armagh, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and I are hoping over the coming weeks to encourage young people across the community to consider engaging with this project – from a faith perspective – through an existing initiative, Laudato Tree.

This initiative has been sponsored and developed by the Society of African Missions (which many of you will know from Dromantine near Newry, a venue which hosts a good number of Church of Ireland conferences). If individuals were physically to plant a tree here and also sponsor the planting of trees on the Great Green Wall in Africa, we would be uniting local and global responsibilities – safeguarding this earth in a very practical way. It is no quick fix, but it is a small step in the right direction. Our young people are not greatly interested in pious words, but they do care about practical action in the name of Christ.