The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard is on a mission. He wants to see those children attending Church of England schools to get the best Christian education that they can. As chairman of the Church’s board of education he presented the recently published Church School of the Future Report to last week’s Church of England General Synod. This is some of what he said:
“I want to persuade you.. that very little is of greater importance for the long-term good of the Church of England, and the Church in England actually, than the way we respond to the Church School of the Future Report.
“I want to convince you that if we miss the importance of this report, the Christian story is in danger of continuing to fall away, as it were: to slide out of our cultural memory. But if we seize the moment, we could be embedding that story back into the life of our nation in a way that we haven’t been able to do for some decades – I put it really quite as strongly as that.
“First, we have to grasp that our Church schools are absolutely and irrevocably at the heart of our mission. Nationally we have a million parishioners every day in our schools. And these schools have a whole hinterland of families, well disposed towards the Church of course, in most cases.
“What an opportunity – but are we up to it? Do we train our clergy for that opportunity or do we see engagement with schools as optional? We clergy ought to have a camp bed in these schools I think. I say sometimes to our clergy that ‘You can’t say that doing funerals is an optional extra, and we can’t say that doing schools is an optional extra.’ It’s absolutely at the heart of our mission. We don’t have to bemoan the fact that our Sunday school is struggling if there are 300 children at the local Church school. So the first big theme is truly owning the centrality of our Church schools in our mission. And if we really did that, that’s a real culture change: it’s not just playing with words and ticking boxes, because that’s the Church in our schools, not just in our sacred buildings.
“So in an age of creeping scepticism about religion, we need this confidence that we have the greatest story ever lived, one with never ending relevance to human life. So we need to make sure that our schools are so rooted in that story – in the life, death and new life of Jesus Christ – that people will be thrilled and challenged by what they see. And it will affect beliefs, behaviour and values – the whole deal. We’re working on a new scheme for teaching Christianity in our schools because actually we’ve come under a lot of criticism for that. And on what a curriculum would look like that truly reflected the Christian faith right the way through its life, not just in RE and collective worship.” (full transcript at the end of this politics.co.uk article)
I’m left simultaneously excited and worried by what the bishop said.
As schools begin to be released from the shackles of the National Curriculum thanks to policy changes by Michael Gove, church schools will be able to teach RE in a way that isn’t so watered down as to make it meaningless as currently is the case. If a Christian ethos is allowed to flourish and if pupils come to a genuine understanding of the gospel by the time they leave these schools, then it can only benefit them even if they don’t have a Christian faith themselves.
There is real passion and sense that I see so rarely from the Church of England. This is indeed an important and timely opportunity for churches and church schools to work together and for a re-evaluation of what it means to be a church school.
I am sure that even though there is a missionary zeal in the Bishop of Oxford’s words, however this works out, it won’t end up with the gospel being constantly shoved down pupils throats and them feeling like second rate humans if they don’t go to church every Sunday. I know this won’t be the case because the Government won’t allow it and the Church’s board of education has more sense than to do that.
However as I very much expected the bishop’s words have been taken and used against him by the usual suspects. The British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) Faith Schools campaigner Richy Thompson responded by commenting:
“It is gravely concerning that, having been freed from the National Curriculum, Church schools will now look to set their own curriculum where they expand the teaching of Christianity. We would question the legality of extending the faith of a school’s curriculum beyond RE and Collective Worship, as parents are often forced to send their children to a “faith” school and these parents and children will have their human rights broken if they are not able to escape from the religious ethos of the school.”
We seem to have reached a point in our society where a faith group such as the Church of England cannot propose an outworking of its beliefs (even though what they are proposing is perfectly legal and acceptable to the Department for Education) without someone jumping in and threatening a legal challenge under the guise of human rights and equality even before they know the full details.
I don’t know how to describe how I feel about this without saying that it’s pathetic behaviour that stirs up trouble for the sake of it. Maybe this is a good time for a debate to be held over how far Church schools can take their beliefs, but I don’t think the BHA and others are interested in a sensible debate although I would dearly love to be proved wrong. Instead their main aim will be to derail any plans they don’t like.
At the end of the day school is all about giving children the best start in life possible. Certainly we want them to come out with the best grades they can achieve, but there is so much more to education and growing up than just passing exams. As long as church schools don’t lose sight of this and have their pupils’ best interests at heart then they should be allowed to present Christianity as it is rather than as a sanitised anemic version that is of no use to anybody.