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The Children's Society Edward Rudolf Lecture

Archbishop speaking at Church House on The Good Childhood Report

Thursday 12th January 2012

The Archbishop reflects on the findings of the Children's Society Report and the commitment to improve well-being of the nations children through the six priorities highlighted. His lecture in full follows...

I         INTRODUCTION

Thank you all for coming to this Edward Rudolf Lecture.  Edward Rudolf, the founder of the Children’s Society, was a remarkable man who worked tirelessly in all its activities, arranging events, encouraging supporters and setting up new children's homes. His life work stands as testimony to someone dedicated to helping children and young people.
As I speak to you tonight, I hope I will not confirm your prejudice about Archbishops: Six days invisible, and when they appear on the seventh day, they are totally incomprehensible.
On a dark January evening, on your second week back to what you were up to before the Christmas break, I realise that now is not a good time to ask if you are happy. If I did I suspect the answer would not be overwhelmingly positive.
But if I asked you whether you were happy with your life, I suspect your answer might be somewhat different. Because this is a very different kind of question. It is not about ephemeral feelings of fleeting happiness that might change by the hour, but a deeper question about your sense of well-being and being at ease with the whole of your life.
It is this deeper question that concerns us today.
In John’s Gospel Jesus talks about this deeper sense of human satisfaction and fulfilment as abundant life, life in all its fullness. These days we talk about human flourishing, life satisfaction, wellbeing, and people being fulfilled. It is what academics and some opinion formers call subjective well-being.
And for some time now there had been a growing realisation that if we want to know about how we are doing as a society we might need to look beyond notions of objective well-being, such as financial security and health and seek instead a more holistic picture of human flourishing.
Life is about more than the endless quest to acquire more possessions - it is more than fulfilling our economic potential; it has to do with fulfilling our human potential.
Or you could put the question more starkly by asking, “What does it profit us to gain the entire world but lose our soul?” Lose the essence of who we are as human beings.
This is a question that has gained some political significance after David Cameron suggested in 2006 that we need to move beyond money as the measure of human flourishing and instead talk about general well-being. And there are some who have been quick to mock Her Majesty’s Government for the whole approach suggesting that it is a waste of money.
But I have a different criticism. My criticism is not that our political leaders should not be taking well-being seriously, but rather that they are not taking it seriously enough. 
And they are not taking it seriously enough for one simple reason. They don’t measure the well-being of everyone. Specifically Her Majesty’s Government has not made any attempt to measure the subjective well-being of Primary School children and teenagers. That is my first challenge to
Her Majesty’s Government today; why aren’t children included?
One of the tasks of the Church of England, as a Church by Law Established, is to work for the well-being of the whole nation. Not just the people inside its congregations, but the people outside its walls as well. And part of that role is to make sure that those groups of people who are too easily marginalised from the public debate are not ignored, but brought back centre-stage. One of the challenges the Church makes to society is to see people as God sees them, as people with worth and dignity, who are able to contribute to and be involved in our national life.
 So it is not good enough for Her Majesty’s government to measure well-being without taking care to include Primary School children and teenagers.
To talk about how happy our country is without reference to such a significant constituent of our society is not simply an oversight, but a moral failure and one that The Children’s Society, in this report, has sought to correct.
So when we listen to Primary School children and teenagers, what do they tell us?  Well the picture they paint is mixed. There is good and bad news in these pages. But one central fact stands out. Today in the UK there are half a million children between the ages of 8 and 15 who are unhappy. And not simply unhappy, but profoundly dissatisfied with the way their life is going.
That fact alone should cause us to stop and take stock. But the real picture is worse than this basic number suggests. Primary School Children and teenagers move in and out of this unhappy, unfulfilled cluster, so that during the course of their childhood and teenage years many, many more children will have suffered a period of genuine profound dissatisfaction than our number of half a million suggests.
That so many Primary School children and teenagers are so unhappy should come as a shock. When we realise that low well-being is also associated with more serious outcomes such as running away from home, eating disorders and even suicide, then shock is an inadequate response. We need to be stirred into action.
The fact is that society is failing a significant group of Primary School children and teenagers.
If we are failing so many Primary School children and teenagers, isn’t it time to rethink how we as a society care for our children? Isn’t it time we changed course?

II        RELATIONSHIPS

I don’t want to suggest that all is doom and gloom. To do so would be untrue. What Primary School children and teenagers actually say about their lives is that for the most part they are happy.
While the number of Primary School children and teenagers who are unhappy is disturbingly high, we must bear in mind that most of our Primary School children and teenagers are happy, most of the time. That is good news.
And there is more good news.
Because what Primary School children and teenagers tell us about their lives is that what is most important to them are the relationships which surround and nurture them. What they tell us is that material prosperity is not the most important thing in their lives. It is love.
If we want our Primary School children and teenagers to flourish then loving relationships are the key.
Christian understanding of what it is to be human, created in God’s image and likeness, has always had much to say about the importance of relationships.  The very nature of God is personal and relational. If one of the important questions of human talk about God and humanity (theology) is how can we be more fully human, one of the answers must be about how we live in relationship to God, and how we live out that divine love in the relationships that we share with others.
So it comes as no surprise that loving relationships are the core of what children need in order to flourish, because these relationships are at the heart of what it means to be fully human.
But it is important to note that love is not the only factor that has an impact on Primary School children and teenagers’ well-being. We would have to be very naïve to think that the story could be that simple. Other factors have a supporting role to play in the story.
Let me point out one such factor.
Money matters.
Children in families who are amongst the poorest in society are twice as likely to be unhappy as those in the wealthiest households.
But we must keep money in its rightful place.
Because having money is not an end in itself; it is one of the ways in which we facilitate relationships. And this becomes clear when we listen to what Primary School children and teenagers actually say about money. What they talk about in this report is the need to have “enough” money. And when you probe below the surface what Primary School children and teenagers need is enough money to be able to spend time with their friends, to have space in which to play, to be able to go away with family and to have enough money to buy the right clothes. If we accept that having the right clothes is about fitting in with their friends then what Primary School children and teenagers say about finance, about money, is that they need it to sustain the relationships that matter to them.
And there is another interesting result to note here too. Primary School children and teenagers who have significantly less or indeed significantly more money than their friends suffer from lower well-being. Too little is not good: too much is not good. Enough is enough, is enough!
There is something about equality in material wealth that nurtures relationships. Or at least there is something about great disparities in wealth that seems to obscure and damage the social fabric of relationships. I have spoken before about the fact that inequalities weaken the bonds of caring, kindness and trust between us. And there is some evidence here that what is true for adults is also true for our Primary School children and teenagers. Inequality for Primary School children and teenagers damages their ability to fit in with their peers, and undermines the possibility of forming genuine relationships.
This report reminds me once more of why I am a Sponsor of the York Fairness Commission. Inequality must be seriously addressed and conquered.
But one final question to ask before we move on is: where are these relationships nurtured? Time and time again as I read this report I see the huge importance of the family as a place where relationships of love are nurtured and supported. Families in conflict, families that do not offer stability are places where relationships get strained and the nation’s children suffer the effects. 
There is a both a danger and an opportunity for the Church here. The opportunity is in the institution of marriage, which the Church has long supported as the best place to bring up and care for our children. And looking at these results I am reminded that one thing the Church can offer is to invest time and effort in making marriages a place where loving relationships are nurtured. Marriage is an institution that can support the kind of stable loving environment in which our nation’s children can thrive.
But there is also a danger. We must not pretend that the institution of marriage and the nuclear family provide an automatic ticket to the well-being of children. This is not what the data suggests. What really matters is the nature of the relationships that children experience. It is these relationships which ensure their well-being – or otherwise. People who are not married are just as capable of being loving and nurturing as anyone else.  I agree with the Chief Rabbi who has said, "Marriage is the most important building block in society. We shouldn't stigmatise single parents — if it doesn't work, it doesn't work — but let society do everything to boost marriage”. 
Let us do all we can to help parents to build for their children the best possible context for their flourishing – homes where they can be sure of stability and faithfulness in relationships, and above all of the love of their parents and carers.
There is undeniably a role for the church here to support people as they try to live in stable and loving marriages. Marriage is good news for society – St Paul was so sure of that he used marriage as an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church. But like any relationship, it needs effort, and commitment – and the conditions in which to flourish.
We need to acknowledge the importance of the context in which marriage relationships happen. I grew up in Uganda where the family consisted of my parents, my twelve siblings, many uncles, and aunties, grandparents, cousins, plus members of my Buffalo Clan, and the Church.  All of these were my family and helped a great deal to support my parents to cement their marriage and raise us up in a happy, purposeful and loving environment. Yes, it is true: It takes a whole village to raise, nurture and educate a child.
For me, I believe the greatest need in our contemporary society is the hunger for truth, belonging, meaning, hope and vision to meet the great spiritual hunger in this country and in the world today.
In a House of Lords debate on Marriage in February last year, I referred to the tremendous importance of family life in building this sense of security, love and belonging which enable us to grow into confident and caring adults. 
As Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, said, in the same debate,
“It is in families that we learn the self-confidence, the trust, the discipline and the resilience that stay with us for the rest of our lives. It is in families that we learn emotional intelligence and the habits of the heart that make for happiness. It is in families that we learn to co-operate with and care for others so that we become responsible shapers of our individual and collective future.”
The extended family was where I found my place in a wide web of mutually supportive relationships.  And this too is a role for the Church. We need to be a place that builds extended families that include not just relatives but all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Extended families who will share in the task of caring for the next generation. If we fail to do this then we place too much responsibility for the care of our nation’s children on the shoulders of our nation’s parents.
At a time when both parents often have to work to make ends meet, this is a big ask. Parents need our support, they need our care, and our children demand that we take on a more corporate role in their care. Children are not the possession of their parents, they are the responsibility and treasure of everyone.
Good parenting is tremendously important.   But the tendency to remember parenting only when something goes wrong is not helpful, and there are social pressures which make parental control extremely difficult even with younger children.   And teenagers are naturally seeking independence from the parent and an opportunity to develop a peer-identity.   Where there are no safe structures for this, unsafe ones will take over.   
 

III       RESPECT, SELF-WORTH, AND MUTUAL SUPPORT

Which brings me on to the second point I would like to make. One of the other key elements for the well-being of Primary School children and teenagers has to do with their need for respect, self-worth and mutual support, and  to have some influence over the decisions that affect their lives.
While it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a child to support a village.
Too often when we talk about children’s issues, we talk about children, rather than listen to, and talk with, them. They become the passive recipients of our knowledge as though adults were the experts in what it means to be a child in the fast moving world of today. We may laugh at Victorian notions of children as “being seen and not heard”, but quite often it is the same attitude we unconsciously adopt today.
But children are not just passive recipients of the care of adults and society at large. To suggest they are is to dehumanise them.
Relationships are about mutuality, recognising people not simply as objects but as actors. Genuine society, certainly a Christian view of society, is one of a network of mutuality between people where all are recipients of and contributors to the well-being of others in a common social covenant.
Any other version of society that reduces people to objects and recipients only denies the divine image within them and fails any test of a Christian understanding of what it means to be human.
So children need every encouragement to play their part, to have their say, to attain some responsibility for the decisions that affect them.
And this is also about relationships. It is about re-negotiating the relationships of power between adults and children, so that power is shared, mutuality begins and human flourishing through relationships is created.  There is of course a hard question at the heart of any discussion about self-regard and respect.
 
 How do parents tread that difficult line between allowing children the space to take responsibility for decisions while being protected from the full consequences of their mistakes? How can we draw boundaries that allow children to learn through making their own decisions while protecting them from having to bear all the responsibilities of adulthood before they are ready? This report shows that, as children grow, the gap between their expectation of how much freedom they need, and their parents’ expectation of how much freedom to allow them, tends to widen. So the question becomes more acute as our children grow up.
There are of course no easy answers, but at least knowing where the tension lies may help us to address it.
One last thought on the freedom for Primary School children and teenagers to own their decisions. When we move the debate beyond the family where do children need more freedom over the decisions that affect them?
How do we as the Body of Christ, the Church, place the voice of the child in the centre of our worshiping communities? Jesus placed a child at the centre of the discussion of how one enters the Kingdom of God: “One must become like a child”. Where do our policy formers hear the voices of children when they take decisions that affect their well-being?
Is there more we can do to make the voices of children heard in our society – before we take decisions that may hinder their well-being?
This report gives us much to think about.
 

IV      HER MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT AND THE CHURCH

Which brings me on to my third and final section which simply asks, “So what?”
Now that we know what makes for happiness for Primary School children and teenagers, whose responsibility is it to try and improve their lives? 
What place do the elected government and councils have in caring for our children, or is this simply a matter for families and communities?
At this point in the political life of our country where the relationship between those who govern, and the governed, is being renegotiated, where will the responsibility fall?
 It is a question of relationships again!
As the social covenant is scrutinised we are trying to work out where the new fault lines lie. For some this might be seen as a movement of power from the centre to the periphery, from elected leaders to citizens. For others this is a way to pass on responsibility without any transfer of resources.
But where do children’s needs fit in all this?
What I do not want to do is to let our elected representatives off the hook by suggesting that the responsibility for the nations children should be entirely the responsibility of parents. One of the roles of the church and particularly the Church of England is to hold all our elected leaders to account: to speak for the voiceless and the unheard; and to be part of the solution.   We are here to help frame the national debate and to reframe it as it strives to meet the moral aspirations of the country.
Indeed in this report and in the accompanying document I see a real challenge for our elected representatives. Not just in the specific policy recommendations, which I hope will be carefully considered, but in our whole approach to Primary School children and teenagers.
Will Her Majesty’s government choose to take an approach to children that considers the whole of their well-being or will they choose to focus on a limited set of goals based around educational attainment?
Is it right that the words “family” or “children” no longer appear in the names of any Government Ministry? It is true that they appear only in OFSTED: Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which is a non-ministerial Department. Does that say something significant about the approach of those in Whitehall? Does it mean that, in spite of all the talk about well-being, when it comes to children we only care about how many exams they pass and how they can contribute to the economy, or schemes that will prevent them from getting involved in criminal activities? By the way, nearly 99.9% of all our ten to seventeen year-olds are law-abiding citizens, and many achieve their full potential in the nation’s schools!
If so, all of us should be asking hard questions of all our policy-makers and deliverers the same question. We should be asking them to do better and to be taking the widest view of our children’s well–being and how they can improve it.
But let me just mention one specific policy point here. Earlier on I spoke about finance and money as an enabler of good relationships. Money may not be an end in itself but it is a means to an end and policy makers still have the biggest influence over how the nation’s finances are organised.
With the passage of Government legislation currently in the House of Lords, including the Welfare Reform Bill, the finances of many of the most vulnerable households will be seriously affected. I recently supported 18 of my fellow Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, who wrote to Her Majesty’s Government to question the way on which the benefit cap would affect household finances and specifically the way it might have a deleterious and chilling effect on children. We know from this research that household income, while not the biggest factor in Primary School children and teenagers’ well-being, does matter.
So any government legislation whose unintended consequence is to drive households into poverty, particularly those households who currently have the lowest incomes, will affect seriously our children’s well-being. Any sense that caring for children is simply a matter for parents, in all circumstances, is simply not true. Her Majesty’s Government and Councils will always have a significant role to play in providing the conditions in which relationships of mutuality and love might develop, but it is not an institution that can make them flourish. 
Of course, all parents have a duty and a responsibility to nurture their children and support them into adulthood.  And many, many parents do this. But we must all guard against putting up barriers which make it harder for parents to carry out their God-given responsibility as parents.
That is the task for us all, as parents and grandparents, citizens and church leaders, we all have to be involved in nurturing our nation’s children.

V       CONCLUSION

There is a lot of good news in the pages of the Children’s Society Report for decision-makers in Parliament, Central Government and local areas:  “Promoting Well-being for Children”. Most of our children are happy with their lives most of the time.
But there is bad news here too. If at any time half a million Primary School children and teenagers between 8-15 years of age are seriously unhappy then we have to accept, not simply that we are not doing well enough, but that we have actually failed too many of our children. And such a failure should be a wake-up call for us all. What we have in this report by The Children’s Society is a call to action and a mandate for change. We need a new framework, a new national consensus for how we will care for, protect and nurture all our children.
One good place for this consensus to start is by measuring the subjective well-being of our nations children and committing ourselves to improve it, through the six priorities for well-being that have been highlighted in the Report:
 1.   The right conditions to learn and develop.
2.   A positive view of themselves and a respect for their identity.
3.   Enough of the items and experiences that matter to them.
4.   Positive relationships with their family and friends.
5.   A safe and suitable home environment and local area.
6.   The opportunities to take part in positive activities that help them thrive.
Alongside all of the objective measures of children’s well-being we need to go further and understand not what makes life possible, but what makes life worthwhile.
The Children's Society have not just done children a favour in conducting and publishing this research, but they have done our nation a favour in challenging a status quo that is clearly failing half a million of our nation’s children between 8-15 years of age.
We need to think again. We need to challenge Her Majesty’s Government and all our Councils to do better.
We need to accept our own responsibility to care for the children in our churches, communities and country. We need to take action.
And we need to start now.
 
Let me end by quoting the wonderful song by Annie Lennox called Universal Child. Its inspiration comes from encountering The African Children’s Choir as they were heading towards the stage to perform for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Campaign in a place called ‘George’ in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 2004.
She writes:
“Gorgeous, beautiful, vibrant children…dressed in traditional costume…buzzing and beaming with energy and enthusiasm. And the best bit was…they all gave me a hug!  Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more and more, just how uniquely special they are. They are all ambassadors of the vast continent of Africa…a continent that has been decimated and violated by so many factors over the centuries…Natural disasters …slavery …colonialism …warfare …exploitation …corruption … and …of course …the degradations of chronic and endemic poverty. All of The African Children’s Choir have been affected by the inheritance of these factors in some way, yet each of these children carries a special light…a special identity and potentiality, as they go forwards into the next generation of young adults.”
And the song goes like this:

Universal Child[1]

How many mountains must you face before you learn to climb.
I'm gonna give you what it takes, my Universal child.

I'm gonna try to find a way to keep you safe from harm.
I'm gonna build a special place, a shelter from the storm.
And I can see you, You’re everywhere, your portrait fills the sky.
I'm gonna wrap my arms around you, my Universal child.
 
And when I look into your eyes, so innocent and pure.
I see the shadow of the things that you've had to endure.
 
I see the tracks of every tear that ran right down your face.
I see the hurt, I see the pain, I see the human race.
 
And I can feel you, you’re everywhere, shining like the sun.
And I wish to God that kids like you could be like everyone.

How many tumbles must it take before you learn to fly.
I'm going to help you spread your wings, my Universal child.

I'm gonna try to find a way to keep you safe from harm.
We’re gonna build a special place, a shelter from the storm.

And I can see you, You’re everywhere, shining like the sun.
And I wish to God that kids like you could be like everyone.
 
Friends, this is our vocation, our calling, for all the children of this great nation.
Thank you for listening.

[1] © Annie Lennox, (P) and (C ) 2010 La Lennoxa www.annielennox.com
 
 

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