My Anabaptist tendencies may emerge in this post, so for those of sensitive Anglican disposition, take cover.
Back in September I applied for and was interviewed for the post of the CEO of a Diocesan MAT (multi-academy trust) in Peterborough. I lasted one day at the interview before they told me I needn’t come back. If they had asked me back, I would not have gone, because I had spent the day searching for evidence of the life of the Holy Spirit in this organisation and really struggling to see it anywhere. In fact, it was clear that the “MAT-ness” of the MAT outweighed completely the “diocesan-ness” of the diocese. In other words, the commercial imperative of the way that the MAT was conducted trumped an acquiescent diocesan ethos to the point of virtual extinction. In order to have a MAT, the diocese had to comply with the structure and function of a MAT.
This is not unusual, and it is largely in keeping with the way that the CofE is going, trying to steer a middle course of having some influence and having its name on things, whilst generally kow-towing to the accountability framework and school structures that it is probably not powerful enough to challenge. If, as is often remarked, the Anglican church is the Tory Party at prayer, then this may come as little surprise.
However, the new(-ish) CE Vision for Education is called “Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good.” I have commented on this at length elsewhere, and don’t want to add to it. What is particularly poorly defined in the vision is exactly what they mean by the common good. The main paragraph that expounds it is:
The vision, in line with the Church of England’s role as the established Church, is for the common good of the whole human community and its environment, whether national, regional or local. It is hospitable to diversity, respects freedom of religion and belief, and encourages others to contribute from the depths of their own traditions and understandings. It invites collaboration, alliances, negotiation of differences, and the forming of new settlements in order to serve the flourishing of a healthily plural society and democracy, together with a healthily plural educational system.
A healthily plural educational system, huh? Is that not just complicity in what they see before them? The “forming of new settlements in order to serve the flourishing of a healthily plural society” – this is not creating or sustaining the common good, it is acquiescing in what is already extant and giving it a Christian gloss. Hardly deeply Christian at all.
No, the common good has to be richer than that, more biblically grounded, and not simply a social construct that just gives theologians a tough task in bending the scriptures around. We cannot assume that what we have is what is desirable – when so much to the contrary seems to be the case.
Of course, as Luke Bretherton has argued, there is a huge overlap between the common good as perceived by Christian experience and faith, and that which can be justly reasoned for in the political sphere using a different philosophical perspective. Perhaps this is what the common good definition refers to above. However, I am concerned that in doing so that the distinctive leadership of the Church of England is lost. We fail to carry out a rigorous analysis of the culture and fail to offer a strong critique of policy before we launch in and take advantage of any of the goodies that are on offer: it is exactly this that the last part of the vision – the “let’s go and make lots of free schools” agenda – gleefully exploits. Government policy is not neutral. It requires constant analysis by a biblically-grounded church and its theological arm, and in the diocesan boards of education, it’s not getting it.
Thus, when we fail to critique OFSTED effectively as a church, when it is clear from secular commentators on the left and the right that much is skewed or wrong with the way the organisation evaluates schools, we are accepting OFSTED’s anthropology, its view of human flourishing, its view of what matters. If we say that a school graded good by OFSTED is therefore good in our eyes, without a serious look at what the provision of that school means for its parents and children, then we have made a serious error of judgment. Realpolitik might be the unthinking attitude, but the church (and hence the DBE) is called to the values of the Kingdom of God, to shine a light into education policy and be a vessel of grace to all.