There was plenty to get you thinking yesterday at CEFEL’s National Conference in London, and after the keynote from Amanda Spielman, the rest of the day was really a chance to reflect on and reinterpret the most important input of the whole event, from Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford. His talk was forthright and because it was, it framed the day, especially some of the woolliness that was lurking in some of the other talks. At the very end of the day, there was a “plenary-breakout,” which is a contradiction in terms, but which gave the chance for each of the theme words to get plenty of discussion. Because Bishop Stephen had spoken on the theme “called,” it was to this afternoon plenary I went, led by Revd Nigel Genders, the CofE Education Officer and by Bishop Rachel Treweek of Gloucester. In this post I will try and summarise both of these inputs and some of the learning that came from discussion afterwards. I am reliably informed that all the morning keynotes were filmed and will be put onto the CEFEL website on this page, empty at the time of writing. In particular, I hope that the transcript of Bishop Stephen’s talk is published in full, because keeping up with him as a notetaker took a bit of doing. In the meantime, his maiden speech a few years ago in the House of Lords is worth a read.
I just checked back to the last time I reported on a talk I heard from him – at the NCCSL conference in 2012 – and he spoke on two aspects that I think frame this sense of calling – one was that we needed to learn to fail well, without taking our eyes off the prize, and not to fear failure. The second one, which he referred to again yesterday, was the subversive nature of the Holy Spirit, who, when we were trying so hard to turn children into adults, was determined to turn adults into children.
We are defined, Bishop Stephen said, by the call to be and do the glory of God – this lies behind every other call. In John 1:43, Jesus found Philip and said to him “Follow me.” This shapes the Christian vocation completely. We are called by somebody – Jesus. He has come to find us, he cherishes us, and he cherishes those we have responsibility for and the schools we are called to serve. He shows us what humanity is supposed to look like when we learn to live our lives in community with God. Humanity, at its best, is shaped by creation in the image of God, made for and growing into, community with God.
Therefore a Christian education is a whole lot more than just learning stuff about God. Fullness of life, true flourishing, requires us to nurture the spiritual, the beating heart of God in each one of us. It is in the interplay of heart, mind, body and spirit that we create a complete education. If we neglect the spiritual, we impoverish humanity: we are called to full humanity, yes, but also to be fully ourselves. God carries in his heart, all the time, a vision of what we can one day become, and this is different for each person, because the call is different for each person.
Presently, in the western world, we are hooked on the idea that we can be improved and satisfied by more stuff: we are an addicted culture in this respect. Instead, where satisfaction comes is in allowing God to transform us into the lovely person that he sees us as already. God has us in our heart already: education therefore becomes the process of bringing each person to the person that God wants and calls them to be, made in the image of God, made to be themselves in community with God.
Therefore schools can be the place where this transformation happens, but only if we emphasise the spiritual alongside all the other aspects of human development. This starts with us as leaders manifesting joyful renewal and transformation in our own lives, and then affirming others in what they can be. We grow and flourish under this affirmation. We “bring the abstract to emotional life” (Madeleine Bunting’s quote in the Guardian here). We believe in a person and through that person God communicates to us directly, in all the ways that he speaks. Jesus takes the time to call us and we receive the call through, principally, the outpouring and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, for us, education is simply impossible without reference to God. Anything else is impoverishment of children. We are involved as teachers and leaders because we are called to fullness of life. This call to be fully human encounters the fullness of life, the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, and this shapes the whole curriculum. This is not just for church schools, but a vision for flourishing for everyone, because it is good for everyone.
Faith, says the writer to Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. What is not seen? This, whatever it is, is critical and valuable: Jesus, the most important and deepest reality of our lives. The Holy Spirit is confounding us at every turn, and subverting our efforts to grow children into adults by reminding us that it is little children who find him. Let us guard against educating childhood out of children.
You might be able to get a glimpse of why this needed some serious reflection time later in the morning.
The afternoon plenary, hosted by Nigel Genders and with Rt Revd Rachel Treweek as the keynote speaker, brought us back to reflect on our calling. Bishop Rachel, who is a trustee of CEFEL, took up the challenge of the recent CofE publication Setting God’s People Free, a report from the Archbishop’s Council. She said that it was imperative that Christians who felt called by God as to how they spend their lives, should be encouraged by the churches to live those lives as teachers and leaders – and that this was as important (or more so) than the call to ordained ministry.
What we get from that call was like, she said, Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, just a huge unknown, but it stemmed always from a desire in God, and then in us, to contribute to a flourishing of people in a flourishing world. Relationship is at the core of being human, at the heart of our humanity, and the call requires us to ask: how do we contribute to the quality of relationship in our schools so that we can educate for community and living well. But all those who are called to teach – we also need to flourish. We “become” in relationship over time, and that needs love and an atmosphere of affection. We don’t talk about love much anymore in schools, but it begins by creating a place where we can understand our given-ness: our calling is taking up our given-ness of who we are, and stepping into a place of love, within relationship.
We often say that we are “called away” from a task to a meeting or whatever. Are we often “called away” from that to which we are “called to”? It is vital, under these pressures, that who we are and what we are called to is a constant in our lives, something we are “becoming to be.”
Following this short reflection (not the best note-taking again, sorry!), a panel of worthies discussed questions raised by the audience. The questions led to other questions. So, here goes:
- Do we use the language of vocation enough? It seems that in some schools, teachers coming into the profession do not have that sense of vocation yet, and come in for other reasons. Using the language in recruitment may focus minds and help us get the people we want in our schools. A sense of vocation is a powerful help in getting through difficulties.
- If teaching is a vocation, it must be a place where adults can really flourish and grow and be all that God made us to be. What would provide for this? Resources? A sabbatical culture? Could the church have a voice to pressurise the government is ensuring it provided for teachers’ flourishing? Can we “call people back to a wonderful huiman flourishing as teachers” and make provision for that? The debate in the House of Lords in December on education tried to address this.
- Are we colluding, as a church with the anxieties that pressure schools?
- Have we defined education as separate from schooling? To many they seem to be the same thing.
- Are we using the school system to tackle the wrong problems? Are schools the right instrument to tackle social inequality? Have we decided what we prize in schools?
- Is SIAMS not yet radical enough? Should it set us on a path to true human flourishing? Does it need grades? In this complicity with the “grading culture” has this damaged our calling and restricted human flourishing?
- Why is church and school leadership and the conference today so un-diverse ethnically? Why so many white people?
- Has the church been complicit in the government’s promotion of an industrial curriculum?
And that’s it. Plenty to think about, and I will post links to the content of talks when they are up on the CEFEL site.