This paper proposes possible practical lines of action that could address the most pressing needs that require initial and immediate attention from the Christian Churches in order to start formulating an active response to the extremely high rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK.
There is a need for further training for youth workers and children’s workers. A cursory glance through training manuals for youth workers and Youth Ministers yields a surprising result: sexuality and teenage parenthood are not addressed in any form, perhaps supporting the misleading perception that teenage pregnancies will not happen if they are not spoken about. It is imperative that churches and training institutions train their workers to be more aware and prepared for the reality of teenage pregnancy, by gaining more information of the government and social services available in their local area; enquiring as to the nature of the rights and entitlements teenage parents have, finding out about counselling services in their area, and on making a decision (through the Diocese or church leadership) as to the education that will be imparted to the youngsters from the church. This “education” will entail dialogue and at times challenging the ‘official education’ of the denomination and taking a stance that might be acceptable to everyone at the start of the programme.
Make use of existing information and courses offered by charities in schools. There are some – although not numerous – charities that have already taken steps to address these issues. These charities and organisations have already collected relevant information and are well versed in the practical options available. Christian organisations could invite speakers (from organizations such as Care, or Options) to come to their premises to give talks to the leaders and ministers in the church, to inform the church’s own education but also to open new channels for teenagers to be able to talk openly about the pressures they are experiencing and explore, together with the church leadership and their parents, possible ways to respond, react and educate non-Christian teenagers with an informed Christian message.
Offer a breadth of Christian responses to pre-marital sex. As the analysis of the historical development of attitudes towards sexual relationships has shown, it is difficult to identify one single attitude towards sex as being the only and righteous approach. Because all these methods have reached secular society through higher education and research, the church is now in a position to choose which approach can be consistently taught.
The churches are in a unique position to offer other alternatives especially those relying on pastoral care, such as in-house relationships (“buddy system”) that would allow teenagers who found themselves in this situation to be able to talk with several trustworthy people within their community and in a safe environment.
To facilitate spaces and opportunities for parents to talk openly with their children about relationships and sexuality. These could take the shape of open days attended by parents and their children in which conferences, work-shops and discussion boards could open a dialogue across generations on relationships, sex, precautions, appropriate self-awareness and self-confidence, etc. Some people who were interviewed find this approach difficult to endorse, however SEU identified the need for conversation to be opened up between parents and teenagers. Lloyd & Lyth (2003) in their report about a one-off drama production and accompanying work-shops in a school in North Yorkshire identify, among other interesting points, that “although a high proportion of children felt that sex was not openly talked about between parents and their children, over 70 percent would have liked to talk to their parents.”
Kiddy (2002), after addressing the difficulty in making Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) in schools appealing and relevant to young boys and men, suggests that “community-based SRE can offer a viable alternative and should bring together parents, young people, faith groups and the wider community to address the issues of teenage pregnancy and sexual health”. This is one of the few mentions in secular writings of the possible involvement of faith communities in tackling the issue of unwanted teenage pregnancies, and it is done in the context of facilitating spaces for communication. The church and its community are in a unique position to offer a safe place for parents to come with their teenage children and learn together; this opportunity opens the door within the parent-child relationship to discuss a difficult topic from a common starting point. Taking up and building on these opportunities provides the church with an inimitable opportunity to extend its teaching and mission to families and teenagers; networking with other institutions in the secular world to provide the health education required, or simply providing parents with a moral and faith-full starting point to talk about the pressures their teenagers are facing from their peers.
A plan of action is necessary. Although the results will not be seen for many years, not taking any action at all (that is, continuing in the same train of action as at the moment: doing nothing) will have predictable results: a failure to reduce the scale of teenage pregnancies, with the consequential detrimental value laid on the family core; social, attitudinal and behavioural issues with the children of teenage parents, who according to the statistics are more likely to be involved in criminal activities and perform badly academically. It is not the church on its own that will bring the changes about. The government is already taking steps calling on the educational and health systems to take action and responsibility. The church needs to step in, use the power of influence over those it can still influence, and exert a positive teaching experience. The church has the opportunity to fill the faith and moral vacuum that is gripping British society that leads many people to search for ethical answers in other faith practices. This means that foremost, Christians must openly speak about Christian beliefs: the value of relationships and community links and support, and the belief in marriage as the future of the family and the community.
The church holds a great richness in her history, a history that remains alive in the present and that her leaders can draw on with ease. The church, and all Christians alike, therefore, have a great responsibility to address this issue and facilitate change. The timely reminder put forth by Grenz on the validity of celibacy as an option young people should be encouraged to consider, rather than feeling forced into sexual relationships by their peers and the media, should be taken up by the Christian organizations with the greatest urgency, and serve as a foundation to the message that not all sexuality needs to find its expression in genital sexual relationships (i.e. intercourse).
The paper from which this article is taken attempts to address and frame a theological scaffolding that could inform and shape a response – much overdue – by the Christian Churches to the social reality of teenage pregnancy. I aver that the need for a change in the way the church and her ministers talk, preach and teach about teenage pregnancy is born purely out of the pastoral and ethical responsibility the Christian Churches carry as embodying the greatest commandment: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.37-40). This love needs to find a practical expression to vulnerable and lost young people with the greatest urgency.
The church places the burden of sin on one third of British teenagers, those who by their own admission are involved in sex at very young ages and outside of marriage – the only acceptable place for sex to take place according to the official teaching of the majority of Christian Churches. For one of every three teenagers, the church is a place where they do not feel welcome, indeed where they have no inclination to go, as the perceived message they will receive is one of condemnation, exclusion and imposed guilt. The Christian Church has the opportunity to change this around: this necessarily requires the church to self-examine her teachings and re-assess where and why guilt is being placed. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour as much as ourselves (Matthew 22.39; Mark 12.31) and without judging them (Matthew 7.1-3; Luke 6.37). It is therefore the church’s responsibility to teach, preach and proclaim, by word and example, a Christ-centred non-judgemental message that encourages positive relationships with others (our ‘neighbours’) within an equal society. This can only be translated in opening up dialogues where conversations have ceased, affirming relationships instead of domination, encouraging a self-examination of the individual where each person is re-affirmed rather than condemned, and gifts, talents and positive attributes are seen as assets and not as flaws.
This is the concluding section to ‘Teenage Pregnancy and the Christian Church’ by Patricia Margarita Lenton de Dickin submitted for the Degree of MA in Theology for Christian Mission and Ministry, May 2008
- Biblical quotes are taken from The new Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, (Metzger & Murphy, eds), New York: Oxford University Press
- Grenz, S.J. (1997) Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective, UK: Westminster / John Knox Press
- Kiddy, M. (2002) ‘Teenage Pregnancy: whose problem’ in Nursing Times, Vol 98, Issue 04, (24 January 2002), UK.
- Lloyd, K. &Lyth, N. (2003) ‘Evaluation of the use of drama in sex and relationship education’ in Nursing Times, Vol 99, Issue 47 (25 November 2003)