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Church to make 77 a date for unity

On the anniversary of the London bombings, Anglicans hope expansion of multi-faith chaplaincies will ease ethnic tensions. Joseph Lee reports

Anglicans were today expected to vote to double the number of chaplains in colleges to improve community relations - on the anniversary of the London bombings.

After the Bishop of London leads the prayers for the victims of last year's suicide attacks, the Church of England's General Synod was due to vote on the plans to put a multi-faith chaplaincy in every college.

Alan Murray, national adviser on further education for Christian churches, said the proposal was a response to tensions following the September 11 and July 7 killings. He said: "Religion is a much bigger issue than it was for students of the previous generation.

"Faith is important in young people's lives in a way which it wasn't before, particularly after 911 and 77."

There are 200 chaplaincies representing all major religions in FE colleges, about 40 of which are multi-faith.

The Church intends to increase that to 400 while also boosting the number of multi-faith chaplains. Salaries would usually be paid by colleges, however, although lay and ordained church members also volunteer their time.

The proposal would also mean appointing support officers at regional and national levels and spending more on training for chaplains. Final decisions on financing lie with the 40 dioceses across the country.

As well as hoping to ease religious tensions, the Church believes the chaplains will boost colleges' ratings on student welfare. They argue that young people are increasingly interested in Christianity.

"If the Church is going to meet the spiritual needs of young people, they have to go where the people are, like colleges, rather than expect them to come and fill the pews," Mr Murray said. He denied that the plan was intended to find converts, arguing that would heighten conflict and tension rather than easing it.

A report supporting the motion, Pushing Further, said FE was the "redemptive" wing of the education system and offers the best chance to make contact with ethnic-minority students and those from poor backgrounds.

It said: "Many adults enter FE with the hope of a fresh start in their lives, sometimes as a result of a personal and spiritual crisis.

"FE chaplaincy offers a unique opportunity for the churches to engage with this generation of young people and adults at a time when many are vulnerable and all are undergoing a programme of learning and change."

Earlier this year, Bill Rammell, the FE minister, called for multi-faith chaplaincies in every college, arguing they could be a vital bulwark against extremism. "College and post-16 environments are the ideal place for young people to develop into rounded members of society through their spiritual and moral development," he said.

But others with experience of religious extremism take a different view.

More than a decade ago, Ayotunde Obanubi was stabbed to death outside Newham College in east London by fellow students from an extremist faction of political Islam. At the time, Newham was criticised for allowing the Islamists to dominate the college.

There is now no religious representation on site at all and the college maintains an entirely secular ethos, while still being praised by inspectors as "outstanding" at integrating people from different ethnic minorities.

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