The 2021 census results revealed that the average Australian Anglican is 56 years old. As a school chaplain working in an Anglican school, the average age of the students that I work with is 13 years old. This statistic helps highlight one of the anomalies that faces the Anglican church – a number of our parishes are in numerical decline and yet many of our schools are growing and thriving.
The obvious question this raises is “what lessons can be learned from what is going on in our Anglican schools that could be of benefit to the wider Anglican church?”
This challenge was touched upon by Anglican Schools Australia CEO, Peter Laurance, in his words to the 2022 General Synod. As the Synod deliberated on the weighty decisions that are impacting the future of the church, Peter lamented the lack of input into these crucial debates from younger Anglicans in our Anglican schools.
Some chaplains felt that Peter’s address to General Synod presented a challenge that we wanted to take up – how to enable the Anglican church to listen and learn from our Anglican school students?
Some of the heads of Anglican Schools in Melbourne felt the same way and put together the first ever Anglican School Students Forum held at Melbourne Grammar in Term One this year. Three students from every Anglican school in Victoria were invited to attend and over one hundred and twenty students accepted the invitation.
Typically, Anglican students only encounter each other in the competitive arena of sport, so to gather together to talk, share and find common ground was a new experience. The afternoon benefitted from an excellent facilitator, Geoff Brown, who had the students engaged, talking and sharing with each other.
Students broke into groups and talked about what they enjoyed and found valuable about being a student in an Anglican school. There were also conversations about what could be built upon and improved in our schools. Students reported back to the wider group speaking positively about their experiences in their school and were easily able to reflect upon what this positivity could offer the wider Anglican church.
For the adults in the room (including the Archbishop and a Bishop) it was a wonderful experience to observe how animated and engaged our students were as they talked passionately about all the good things that were going on at their school. What the students clearly valued about their school was the positive culture of acceptance and inclusion. The students were insightful enough to make the connection that this inclusion and acceptance were part of the culture of their school because they were Anglican schools.
The chaplains then looked to share the positive experience of the Student Forum with the wider Diocese. Every three years the Diocese of Melbourne has a Ministry Conference and a workshop was run at this year’s conference where students from a number of Anglican schools had the chance to share and present. In their reflections to delegates, the students picked up on many of the themes that were shared in the forum. In a conference where the challenges the church faced were regularly addressed, delegates appreciated the sense of positivity for the future that the students shared.
The census figures present the church with a stark challenge, however the voices of our students provide a beacon of hope. As Peter Laurance stated in his address to General Synod ‘Anglican schools sit right smack dab in the middle of our Church’s mission and ministry today.’ As chaplains we are well aware of this, however the church could benefit from the occasional reminder of this important truth. Our students are a wonderful resource for the wider Anglican church in terms of their optimism and hope. As chaplains working with young people, we are deeply invested in the future of the church. It is well worth us exploring ways we can get our student voices heard so the wider church can listen and learn from them.