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Columnists

Suffering the Children's Society

Paul VallelyElephant is not the right word. So let's say there was an epiphany in the room. Whatever. But certainly everyone avoiding mentioning it. It was called God. The report by the Children's Society into the state of British childhood caused a fair old stir recently with its finger-pointing at excessive individualism, selfish parents, high family break-up, teenage unkindness, premature sexualisation, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and too much inequality of income throughout society. It offered up so many culprits, and such a wide range of solutions, that almost every pundit found something to embrace - and something else to reject - in its expansive portmanteau. But one thing kept coming back to me in ploughing through the endless screeds of evidence and reaction. It was how overwhelmingly secular it was.

That might have seemed odd to those who realised that the Children's Society was in the old days always referred to in the media as The Church of England Children's Society. But whoever has been responsible for rebranding the charity - one of the malaises which have become epidemic in the charity world in recent times - must have been pleased. God was successfully kept off the agenda. It was quite possible to miss the little button, three clicks in on their website, ambiguously entitled 'Our Partnership with the Church of England'. Anything too obvious might put people off, or undermine the credibility of the report in the eyes of our secular society.

So there was something in A Good Childhood for the Left, with its calls to abandon school league tables, scrap SATS tests, raise teachers' pay, train a thousand more child psychotherapists, build more youth clubs, create more apprenticeships, ban advertising to under-12s, outlaw television commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before 9pm and prevent building on any open space where children play. And there was red meat too for the Right in its support for the family, advocacy of discipline and firm boundaries, criticism of working mothers, and demand that sex education should not be about biology or bananas on condoms but part of social and emotional learning.

But there was something else too which gave a solid undercarriage to the report's approach. 'Three words best sum up our message,' it said at one point. 'The first is love'. But there were others too, like respect, honesty, kindness, values and community. Adults should lead by example. Children should be involved in their community. The world had to be made a better place. Of course any decent humanist could say Amen - though probably not literally - to that. But, then came a recommendation that children 'should be helped to develop the spiritual qualities of wonder and peace - and the sense of something greater than themselves'.

It all sounded suspiciously like (whisper it softly) Christianity to me. All that love, compassion, fairness, and forgiveness. All that 'unconditional belief in the worth and importance of all children'. Finally the report allowed its proverbial slip to show. For children whose birth is not celebrated through a religious ceremony like christening, it said, there should be a civil birth ceremony. This would allow parents to celebrate the birth of their child and publicly vow to care for the child in a way which would reinforce a commitment for parents to do the best for their child.

What the writers of the report have seemingly done is to deconstruct Christianity, strip out God and attempt to retain the spirituality and the social cement religion has traditionally afforded. Of course there was lots of the talk about how psychologists assess the inner states of children. And there was the substantial accumulation of evidence - with 35,000 outside submissions to the commission and three years of study - about what works to improve the experience of childhood. But beneath it all lay the revealing admission that 'children are a sacred trust'.

It is, I suppose, all better than nothing. But I can't help but feel that it is an impoverished option. That fact was demonstrated in a television report to highlight the approach the report is advocating; it showed the head teacher in a primary school walking round his school assembly showing the red-jumpered charges at his feet a series of placards. On them were written abstract nouns like happiness, friendship and courage. The camera cut to a pert little seven-year-old expounding on whether honesty and truth were different words for the same thing. How much easier it is to convey the vitality of such profound realities through stories and people, as Jesus demonstrated 2,000 years ago when he told his followers that they should address God as Dad.

The simple message to children that 'Jesus loves you' may go some way to explaining why it is that sociological surveys consistently show that religious people report greater levels of happiness than others. It is easier to glimpse that something beyond the self through other people than philosophical abstractions. That, after all, is the genius of Incarnation. There really is an epiphany in the room.

The truth is that, when it comes to mending the tears in our social fabric, religion should be a key component, some would say the key one. It is only a shame that the luminaries of the Children's Society, for all their afterword by the Archbishop of Canterbury, did not have the courage of their convictions and say that directly, instead of striving so strenuously to avoid offending anyone by offering this diluted secularist alternative. Christianity works. Added to which it also has the added advantage, for those who are prepared to be truly radical in our secularised postmodern pluralist society, that it is also true.

Paul Vallely