Last week I spent a day exploring the inner workings of a diocesan multi-academy trust, trying to find any signs of what made it distinctively Christian as an organisation, either in the way that it was run or in the way that it impacted the lives of those who adhered to it. I looked for signs of prayer, of encouragement, of faith, of love, of the mention of Jesus – I found none of these, and came to the unfortunate conclusion that it had sold out to the prevailing concept of school improvement, which is above all a deficit model identifying those things which are not yet rather than celebrating that which is. What I found a complete lack of, though, was joy. In one of the conversations I had with one of the directors, we got discussing what school improvement would look like if it were rooted in a Christian understanding of human flourishing, and she asked “but what about OFSTED? What would schools waiting for OFSTED make of the kind of model you propose?”
I wanted to invite her to Christ the Sower to show her. We are a school that waits daily, weekly, for an inspector’s visit, but which is determined to live and love in joy. Even in the face of one of the great joy-robbers of our day – and OFSTED robs joy from schools more effectively than anything I know, which is why it is totally unfit to serve us – we are determined to delight in children, to delight in one another and to delight in all that God has given us. If we lose this, we have lost everything. Jesus said to his disciples that nobody would be able to take their joy.
Back in 2012 or 2013, the redoubtable Gail Tolley, then director of children’s services for Milton Keynes Council, paid our school a visit. She began with our 2012 OFSTED report, which of all the encounters with officialdom we have had since I started at Christ the Sower was the best at missing the point entirely, but after she had, in her brusque way, tried to point out that we were not just good enough, I took her on a tour of the school. An hour later, back in my office, she said “Huw, you were right to show me around: what stays with me from this school is just the sheer joy you take in it.” Well spotted, Gail. Many others would not have got that, but she was perceptive enough to notice. In the heart of our relationships, in the considerateness and respect we pay all, in the modelling of conduct and decision-making by leaders, is the absolute conviction, shared by those who are Christian and those who are not, that we are made up of holy, inviolable individuals, characterised by beauty and worthy of all dignity and love. Those who do not act in this spirit stick out like a sore thumb, and they are few. This is what the SIAMS report meant by us being an “inclusive and harmonious school community.”
Before visiting the diocesan MAT last Wednesday, I had been thinking about the importance of joy as a hallmark of our lives, and of its great ability to slow us down and take note of the beauty and createdness around us. Joy roots our rich contentedness outside of ourselves, in the heart of God and his works. In Nehemiah 8, the prophet Ezra calls on the people of God, returned some years previously from exile in Babylon: Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Neh 8:10)
This command mixes generosity, compassion, the delight of eating, the abandonment of tears and the embracing of joy as a means to building one another up – in one glorious moment.
We need to heed this command again and again. I was sitting at the end of a lovely service at St Aldate’s in Oxford the weekend before last when Charlie Cleverley, the rector, finished the service and the ministry with the cry “Stay! There’s joy in the house!”
This must be our hallmark, our defence, our song, our strength, and the word we receive from our Father, who stands over us (see Zephaniah 3:17ff) and whispers: “You, yes you, are all my joy…”