It has been nearly two weeks since I attended the Church of England’s Education Conference in Westminster with the above title. The first set of reflections are here. Whilst it was Anglican, and therefore had its fair share of frustrating moments, it has provided a good set of angles to hook thinking on. Some “second” reflections, two weeks on:
- When the Anglican church talks about education, it means schooling. Parents and families were not mentioned during the day and are not mentioned in the Vision for Education, and they should be there, front and centre, as the people on whom the bible places the chief responsibility for the education of the young. Further, the church as an educating influence of young people was not mentioned, and perhaps that should have been included.
- Defining the word Christian also requires some thought. To say that something is “deeply Christian” is very nice, if a bit self-congratulatory (oh, we are not like some, who are just shallowly Christian; our education goes really deep!). But what does it actually mean? During the day there was no explanation of this, probably because the Anglican communion is so broad and so varied in its interpretation of scripture that it cannot really define the thing. In my work I have tried to define terms formally, because we get into terrible trouble otherwise. It is worth the effort, because sometimes it yields some really powerful theological insights. Think of the problems we have created by saying that all children are “children of God” – a lack of clarity can mean that a generation of children can go through life thinking that they have to do nothing at all about their response to the gospel of salvation, because they are already God’s children. The title of the CofE’s otherwise excellent document on challenging homophobic bullying falls into just that trap.
- The conference as a whole, and the vision document as a written representation of it, was remarkably light in the way that it interpreted and built upon scripture, on the role and activity of the Holy Spirit, on the role of discipleship and on the place of education in the overarching purposes of God. These are there, but often just as quote texts, rather than as a statement of a strong theological position. It is not as though the church is not blessed with great expositors and preachers at the moment, and I was disappointed to find the day not more rooted in our primary source of authority.
- The word mission occurs just three times in the document, and yet those of us who are called on to use it and put it into practice in our schools see ourselves as being in the forefront of that more than anything. One of the references to mission is excellent, and bears all the signs of Prof David Ford’s authorship:
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs are all signs of abundant life, such as healing, feeding, and raising the dead. And the first, archetypal sign is gallons and gallons of water turned into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11). It is a sign that does what is necessary to save the day, and far more than is necessary. It was a quiet, untrumpeted sign, done for the common good of the host and guests, to celebrate one of the most universal social realities, coming together in marriage; and it seems that most of those present were not even aware that Jesus was responsible for it. Yet some, his disciples did have eyes to see it, and believed. In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had begun to gather a community of disciples, learners. His first words to his first disciples were the fundamental question for any learning community: ‘What are you looking for? What are you searching for? What do you desire?’ and his disciples’ first title for him is Rabbi, Teacher (John 1:38). And as Jesus later breathes his Spirit into his disciples, he says: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21). If we put together Jesus as teacher with Jesus giving signs of abundant life for the common good, and ourselves sent as he was sent, then ‘Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good’ makes deep sense as part of our mission. Schools are signs of fullness of life for all, as they educate children for wisdom, knowledge and skills, for hope and aspiration, for community and living well together, and for dignity and respect. Many will enjoy the wine and not recognize where it comes from; some will, with our help, trace it to who is responsible for it; but whether our inspiration for doing what we do is acknowledged or not, it is the right thing to do – as followers of the One who came to bring life in all its fullness, to do signs that give glory to God.
One of the enduring frustrations of church school leadership is the extent to which clergy (and not just Anglican clergy, by the way) see their mission as that which the church does. This nearly always results from a seriously faulty reading of scripture and a poor understanding of the inaugurated kingdom. The impact on church school leaders is huge, because they are trying to find ways of impacting their schools for the kingdom of God often without any proper support from their churches. Talking about this with an old friend who is involved in mission in South East Asia earlier this week made me see that it is possible to support mission in the workplace as church leaders, but you need a certain shift in your theology of the Kingdom of God to incorporate it into the fullness of the mission of the church. More of this anon.
- That teachers and headteachers need to do theology was clear from the first afternoon session that I attended at the conference, led by David Ford, entitled “The theologian and the headteacher”. David’s two guests were Chrissie Milwood, head at Holy Trinity School in Crawley, and Simon Atkinson, head of St Stephen’s Primary School in Paddington. Both, interestingly, are ordained. Both talked about the need to be a hospitable community, hospitable to diversity, whilst keeping a firm view of their Christian roots. When David asked “Can we expect teachers and leaders to engage with theology?” Chrissie gave a resounding yes, because grappling with the nature of the divine, and enabling others to grasp and understand it, is something that Jesus came directly to address, and it is a concern for all children and adults. If we are created in the image of God, then for all staff it is a challenge to live that out in practical terms – and that means doing theology. We should see wisdom-seeking as theology, leading us to explore and think harder, so that wisdom becomes foundational to the way a school is organised. When David asked “what are the practical ways in which this theological vision can make a difference to children?” the answers were many and varied: underpinning financial decisions in order to allow children to flourish; child protection flowing from the dignity of the person; humility and creativity springing from the questioning of wisdom – and many more (which I did not note at the time). One question remained with me, and led to more thought then – and since: How do we take the values and virtues of this vision and make sure that everything we do in schools flows from them – how does it inform pedagogy?
- The answer to that, partly, is in the role played by What If Learning, as developed by Trevor and Margaret Cooling and Trevor’s research and teaching team at NICER in Canterbury. What if Learning assumed a much greater relevance to our work at Christ the Sower once I had attended the second afternoon seminar run by Trevor, Caroline Thomas, Anne Lumb and a young teacher called Kate Charlesworth who really convinced me of its effectiveness in schools. Some of what we will do at Christ the Sower next week is derived straight from the What if Learning Character Development Project funded by the DfE and the Jerusalem Trust. This is too important to deal with in the context of this reflection, and needs its own post.
- The day finished with speakers from the morning sessions (Bill Lucas, David Ford, Ndidi Okezie) summing up the impact of the day: Bill warned us against a binary view of the work of education, and urged us to celebrate better the schools that have already done some of this work; David spoke of the need to love God with all our minds, and asked us to have an intelligent faith used in everyday education; Ndidi reminded us of a truth that is easily forgotten – that if we are not working together with others as a leader, you are simply not working.
Some final thoughts: if it is true that the better we know God, and the deeper we learn to love and trust Him, then the better we will know ourselves – if that is true, and surely the Bible points wholly in that direction – then why did I leave thinking that I did not know much more about God? Why was the relationship between us not explored? Why was prayer so stilted and forced? Why did we not talk about discipleship as servants and worshipers of the King? How come that God, in Jesus, was not exalted in worship among us?
All of these things troubled me. It was almost as if, in the rush to ensure we catch the train of relevance, we have left large parts of our luggage at home, or at best, in the taxi.
It was a great conference, and it did a great service. But we serve a great King, and we could easily have been forgiven for not noticing Him there at all.