In many parts of the world charities to serve people with needs were originally set up by religious organisations or by individuals whose beliefs motivated them to work for their less fortunate fellow humans. This is true of children’s charities.
In the United Kingdom, Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Homes, the Church of England Children’s Society and the Catholic Welfare Societies were all founded by Christians. Although some charities, such as the Thomas Coram Foundation, date back to the eighteenth century, these charities mainly burgeoned in the late 1800s. It was a time of firm beliefs for many people, and the Christian Church was part of the British establishment.
Yet as time has moved on, these organisations have become less explicitly religious and although staff are still motivated altruistically to help children in need, the workers in these organisations themselves are often non-Christians, and religious observance is often very limited. Legislation has also passed many of the responsibilities for children to secular organisations such as local authorities. Because they are specifically non-religious, involvement with any organised religion has generally been avoided. Although there is a box on forms to identify a child’s religious background, this has usually been treated nominally.
This move towards secularisation and away from organised Christianity reflects a general trend over the last century in the United Kingdom as a whole, with increasingly lower church attendances. There are also signs, however, that there is the beginning of a swing back towards greater church attendance and a new confidence.
It is against this background, sketched out very briefly, that Keith White has raised the question of children’s spirituality in his In Residence column this month. It is a neglected subject. Because local authorities have to avoid favouring one religion over another does not mean that children have no spiritual dimension to their lives. It has been our failure professionally over recent decades to see this as no more than a denominational label on case files. It is an area of children’s lives which requires involvement at depth. Like any adult, children need to be able to think and decide for themselves what life is about, where they fit in, what the purpose of life is, what they should do with their lives. Depending upon their age and experience of life, they will come up with differing answers.
This Editorial has used Britain over the last couple of centuries as an example, but people working with children in countries throughout the world, whatever the dominant religions or political philosophies, still need to help each child to develop his or her own understanding of life, and to see themselves within the context of the whole of creation. If we focus on the physical care of children, their schooling, their leisure opportunities and their family links, and we ignore their spiritual needs, we are failing to offer them the holistic care which they need, both in their growth towards adulthood and in understanding their own lives as children.