If ever the Church of England employ a new conference manager, I suggest that they give him/her some tasks on developing imaginative titles for conferences. On Friday I went to the not-too-excitingly-named The Church of England Approach to Character Education conference – one that described what was there perfectly, but which also suggested a fairly pedestrian angle to the topic. It was not, at all. Held in the main conference room of Church House in Dean’s Yard in Westminster, it was an incisive, clear and well-thought out conference that was splendidly organised and very well attended. The folk organising it from the Church of England Education Office did a great job and by the end of it I had 10 pages of close notes plus the chance to review the discussion paper that came with it, entitled The Fruits of the Spirit. It was a fascinating day partly because there was this overwhelming sense of the Church of England being this thing that had power and reach and history. There was a continuity with the work of the church in education that reaches back two centuries. The day opened with Bishop Stephen Conway’s (Ely) speech on Character Education that the CofE press office has kindly published in full, and from there we had opportunity throughout the day to hear different perspectives on what Character Education is (many of these case studies are found in the Fruits of the Spirit document, with others that were not part of the day), but also how it has been applied in schools. Those who attended came from diocesan boards of education, academia, schools (over 20 heads and principals and another 20 or so senior leaders), para-church organisations, and representatives from other denominations, think tanks and research organisations, and there was a high level of agreement that we had heard important things for children’s education and that we had something of a way forward at the end.
However, there was, in all of this, a sense of being “done to”. One of the problems of being a church school is that you are inspected for being one through the SIAMS process. And whilst this is nowhere as harsh or as potentially intimidating as its secular brother in OFSTED, it is nonetheless a driver. This leads away from a sense of grace and towards a pressure that school leaders must do things in order to meet the SIAMS requirements. This is probably a necessary constraint, and one I willingly submit to. But it meant that the whole discussion on character education led to a feeling that it was something that dioceses and school leaders between them would find a plan to implement, and then implement it. Nobody really mentioned prayer (we had the obligatory collect, said grace before lunch, and closed in prayer of course) and the word “spirit” meaning the Holy Spirit was only mentioned when referring to the booklet. There was instead a strong sense that we had a different perspective and that that perspective would of itself have the power to drive changes in our schools that would make them distinctive. I had a couple of conversations with people from DBEs in Blackburn and Chichester about this, and came away with the feeling, which we acknowledged, that we were doing this back to front. We were expecting schools to implement what we thought would be pleasing to God in our schools without doing the necessary theology, narrative reasoning, submission to the Holy Spirit and humble prayer that lead to transformation. Dallas Willard counsels against this strongly in The Divine Conspiracy: it is not the graces and disciplines themselves that transform character – they can lead to self-righteous hardening of heart – but the submission to Jesus and the willingness to allow him to transform us that do the job in the end.
On Friday, we needed a strong theological framework to function in (Bishop Stephen’s talk pointed to but did not expound one, so we did not have a common position to argue from or against) and we needed examples of schools who had waited on God for direction and then prayer and acted and seen him transform education or young people. Maybe it is just me, but I needed both clear reasoning and new inspiration to do this job, and richer expectations that God would act in and through me by his Holy Spirit. So I gained much, had many useful conversations, but came away feeling that the perspective we have at Christ the Sower is perhaps more unique than I had previously thought, and that the sort of things we have seen God do on our behalf there are maybe less common than I had imagined.