Last night I was invited to talk at a meeting of the MK Theology Forum, a group who meet regularly to hear and ask questions on a range of questions to do with faith in the public sphere. Last night, Sherry Gladwin and I spoke to about 25 people in Christ the Vine in Coffee Hall on the subject of Faith in Education. It was a delightful evening, and the genuineness of questions and the desire that we make an impact on the world we live in for the common good and for Jesus’ glory, made it a place of peace and good fellowship. Sherry spoke with a broad brush on the history of Christians in education in the UK and made a number of comments about how we position ourselves with regard to the current political and educational landscape. My talk was focused more narrowly, about how we could develop a day-to-day theology of learning and being in schools that would sustain and grow God’s kingdom in and around us – nothing new, actually, but here is the text of the short talk anyway:
I’d like to start by thanking Stephen for the invitation this evening. I am going to begin with a short look at one scripture, then give some school context, then give 7 very brief applications of an emerging theological approach to education.
Here is Paul on Mars’ Hill in Acts 17:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples…. he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth….God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
This is one of Paul’s most explicit links to the doctrine of creation – the purpose of God in making people and the cultures they form. In it we find God’s mandate that all his creation should turn to him, since we already, in all we are and do, are and do it in Him. This speech, made in the midst of a pagan and intellectual-philosophical capital city, is a reassertion of God’s kingship over the whole earth and of every sphere of human activity, and a description too of the persistent nearness of heaven, overlapping perpetually with the created order. Both of these – the reassertion of God’s kingship and the proximity of heaven – are vital when considering a theology of education.
In 2011, I came to Christ the Sower as headteacher after moving down from Shropshire. In my mind was a challenge of how we could make a church school effective in terms of Jesus’ mission to the whole earth. It struck me then, and continues to, that we’ve often not honoured, as Christians, God’s ownership and kingship of the world that was inaugurated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and will continue until its fulfilment at his glorious return. God thus has the rights of a King – to be sure, a servant King, which is how he exercises his kingship through his people – over every aspect of his creation, and that included schools.
It was as though the 18th Century enlightenment had red-carded God and told him to leave the field. They assumed he had left; the church, moreover, largely assumed he had left too, with just occasional miraculous intervention into the “evil world”. In the embrace of 19th century modernism that followed the enlightenment, only few focused reformers like Shaftesbury and the founders of the National Society, seemed to notice that God was still on the pitch, active and involved in every aspect of ruling his creation. My view, following Paul at the Areopagus, was that this includes schooling and we have to try and articulate that through a reasoned theological approach with day-to-day practical outworkings.
I had begun at Christ the Sower under the shadow of God’s speaking to me through Psalm 84. That motivated and guided me over the first two terms. And they were needed. The school was not in an OFSTED category, and avoided it only thanks to LA Intervention the autumn before I began, but there were concerns about standards of teaching and learning, attainment, progress, as well as a difficult financial settlement leading to a large reorganisation of support staff. This latter had caused a lot of uncertainty and pain, and so a lot of my first term was built around encouraging people, affirming their efforts, getting them believing in their work and their love for children, and letting them know that God’s kindness was directed toward them. Writing to Governors at the start of my first report to them that summer, I laid down some of the direction I felt we were being called to:
- A fundamental commitment to seeing the world the way Jesus is shown to have seen it in the gospels – for the poor, for the weak, against oppression, and in a life to be lived abundantly and affectionately with excellence and creativity, goodness and strength of character.
- Learning together is our core purpose, and that our first responsibility is to BE learners and to GROW learners around us; that learning brings humility, joy and a depth of character that others may learn from.
- That learning is for “works of service” and if we do not teach children to serve one another by our example, then we have created nothing of much value.
- That self-control, compassion and resilience are at the core of maturity, and in pursuing them we are cooperating with God’s purpose to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”.
What was beginning to form in my mind were pools of understanding as to the purpose and direction of schooling in the Kingship of God. They informed our common vision in 2012 and now undergird pretty much all we attempt. I identified 7 of these “pools”, and I will talk about them briefly, before perhaps exploring them more deeply through questions. Much must go unsaid!
- The doctrine of creation means that God is FOR human flourishing.
- It presents a purpose to human life as image-bearers of the King, whether Christian or not; therefore all are called to his praise. This has to mean that we see God’s work in the lives of all adults, children, families etc. deriving from a uniquely Christian anthropology.
- A Christian view of human flourishing is away from individual satisfaction to rich neighbourliness, from Nietzsche’s “human improvement” towards compassion for the poor, and from personal wellbeing toward a healthy community and society.
- If God is calling the nations to his praise, and therefore to discipleship in his standards, desires and ways, schooling has to be a home of that discipleship.
- Briefly, following conversations with John Bradley, I prefer a reading of Matthew 28 that is closer to the Greek than our usual translations – that we are called to disciple the nations. There are all sorts of ramifications here in both modelling conduct at personal and organisational levels, as well as what and how we speak.
- We are called to ensure, as Christians, the health of families, communities, relationships and the natural world.
- These are demonstrated principally through the doctrines of servanthood and stewardship and these are shown in the community of love and affection we create, and in mutual submission to each other – this affects teaching, leadership style, and our approach to the school buildings, amongst many others.
- A biblical understanding of knowledge, wisdom and pedagogy
- What does it mean that in Christ are ALL the treasures of wisdom and knowledge? Articulating this impacts both our curriculum and the way we teach it. This is a huge topic, needing separate exploration.
- Perhaps where we have worked hardest is to articulate a theological approach to invitation, inclusion and hospitality, allowing those who visit, learn or pass through to be at home.
- We talk about this by saying “there is no way of doing school here – we will change to accommodate your gifts and abilities and to make you feel at home, and honour and welcome you for coming!”
- It also is reflected in the way that all are invited to participate in the life of Jesus among us, but none are expected to.
- Can we pray for prophetic insight into school issues, for healing, for insight and for depth of understanding for our children?
- This has been our constant testimony, that God answers prayer on behalf of the weakest and least able, to bring peace and restore shalom, and in physical and psychological healing.
- It has led to the challenge of being a praying school, which we are wrestling with at the moment.
- Lastly, God’s Good News is good for the whole earth.
- Thus there is a public witness to our prophetic stance within the marketplace of education. There has been a prophetic witness through church schooling since the 1820s, and in every generation, that needs renewing and further articulation.
- In this generation, which needs more than ever to know that Jesus loved them unto death and longs for their flourishing and healing and shalom, it is our job, in our nations’ schools, to show forth his praise.