Some time ago (before Christmas) I tried to define what it is about an aided or Christian school that made it Christian, and in particular, how it differed from a church, as much as it differed from a “community” school. I don’t know how successful I have been, but as we actively seek to renew our vision of learning, I offer this as a “position paper” to provoke discussion in the school community ahead of the sharing of our schoolvision with parents, governors, staff and the community.
CHRIST THE SOWER: HONOURING A CHRISTIAN FOUNDATION
There is a widely held perception in the school that the developing and deepening Christian character of Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School is a good thing, giving us a greater sense of identity and a paradigm within which we educate children – we respect the spiritual life and therefore we teach in a way that acknowledges and seeks to grow the spirituality of our children. This perception also acknowledges that before 2010 there was a reluctance on the part of the leadership to model a distinctively Christian ethos for fear of reducing our community effectiveness and/or of offending those who worshipped different Gods or followed different belief systems. The expectation and experience of many in the school is that if we nail our colours to the mast we will be more successful in reaching our community, especially if we are sensitive to the needs and wishes of those who do not share a Christian view of the world. In particular, many faith communities outside the Christian church find secularism a greater threat than a Christian worldview and are happy to engage with us on issues around ethics, worship, creation, prayer, etc.
We were founded as a Christian school, part of, and an equal member of, the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership (WVEP). The WVEP website has a tag saying “Our Churches and School”, and our prayer newsletter is displayed on the WVEP website. One of the school’s founding purposes is to be a
“school where we use our understanding and experience of the God we know through Jesus Christ to shape our policies and practices”.
This is balanced with a statement that the school
“is dedicated to the well-being of the local community, being open to and respecting its diversity of faiths and lifestyles”.
This twin balance means that we speak and act “Christianly” whilst engaging as fully as possible with the community which we serve.
However, this has some fairly strenuous implications for our life and practice. On the one hand, we are not a church, and so we are not called to evangelise or preach. But on the other hand, we are a school whose ethos and values flow directly from the Christian faith, and so that has to be shown clearly – vividly, even – and we are also planted in the community where we are as a light to that community. In fact, we are perhaps the most obvious symbol of Christianity in Grange Farm. In that respect, the school takes on some of the functions of a worshipping Christian community even though many of its members do not have an active faith. The pastoral aspects of our life will mimic those of a church, and the teaching role of the school into the community must have a strong Christian angle to it – if it is to represent our foundation properly. Maybe, then, some of those “strenuous implications” could be the following:
- Jesus Christ as central. The ecumenical movement has striven over the years to define exactly what it believes and has in common – if nothing else, that means the person, teaching, life, work and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that he was who he said he was and that the implications of his life for how we live ours are accepted fully by all who own him. As an ecumenical school, the first terms of reference for conduct and values have to come from the gospel of Jesus Christ and the example set by his life and work. It means that wisdom and knowledge are equally valued and that our curriculum must eventually reflect both “streams of learning”.
- Collective Worship as central. This means that our communal life, the times we meet together, the emphasis we place on our communal acts and the values we renew together should take place in an atmosphere of worship, allowing children to participate in reflection, silence or prayer as they choose. That collective worship is part of our curriculum is also self-evident, as it is in collective worship that children and adults grow in and are taught in the wisdom that flows directly from the Bible.
- Prayer as central. If children are going to grow as spiritual beings, they need to find a way of “turning” to the non-material world that every culture in history has acknowledged lives alongside the material one. Prayer and meditation offers a way in for children to learn about their interior lives and will inform their choices about religious faith in the future. We cannot preach a child to the Kingdom of God, but we can create the conditions where s/he can choose to explore and follow.
- The Bible as central. Having a Christian foundation means that we cannot escape the teaching of the Bible. Whilst theologians can argue around its meaning and application until they are blue (or purple, generally) in the face, we have to take seriously that our lives are lived before a kind and powerful creator God who has made a decision to show us how to live through his word and principally through the presence on earth of his son. Paul says that all scripture is useful for training in righteousness, and it is important to take this, and the scriptures that guide us, seriously. In general, there is enough hard evidence of transformed lives as a result of men and women following God to suggest that the biblical values taught by Jesus will serve as a model for educating children in the values the whole community would want for their children.
- A School Chaplaincy as central. Mediating these values to the school community requires a curacy of men and women who will serve as chaplains to the school. These would be those who, from their gifting and calling (or indeed, their position) would devote significant time to the spiritual care of children and adults in their community, and who would ensure that everything from the resolution of difficulties to the planning of worship would take place in an atmosphere of prayer, caring affection and openness that would demonstrate their commitment to walking the way of Jesus Christ in the school. Presently we have a paid chaplain, nominally half-time, but also many people who could take on that role in a part time capacity and who would meet to pray, share communion, worship and seek God’s blessing on the life and work of the school. In the future the chaplaincy might include volunteer parents as well as staff.
- Community as central. In the same way that there exist churches who seek to follow Jesus but forget to engage with the world beyond their doors, it is also possible that we fail to engage with our broader community. We cannot evade a central purpose of this school being to serve, to help to grow young people and to encourage and build up the family life of their parents through engaging with them in a rich variety of ways. We cannot seek to lead and influence a community which we do not engage with. All we have as a school must be “collated” (to use a highly clerical word) and ways found to offer the beauty and joy of our communal school life to those around us.
Walking the balance between school and church is not difficult if we couch the paradox in terms of mission. The mission of God is to all who do not yet know him or who want to know him more deeply. The implications for the quality of our life, the quality of relationships, the way we advance learning and promote excellence are all important indicators of how much we are pursuing that mission. It merges into a form of discipleship – where even those in school who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ in their lives willingly acknowledge their personal growth towards the values we all espouse – values rooted in the Gospel of Christ, the soil in which we grow.