It might seem to some followers of this blog that I make too easy and equal a connection between the mission of the church and the mission of church schools, that somehow a church school is simply a ministry arm of the main church that deals with the education of children.
I hope I don’t leave people with that impression overmuch, but I also hope that I leave enough doubt in people’s minds that an equality between the two might be a possibility.
As CofE maintained schools and academies have a privileged position of equality with other maintained schools and academies in the “mixed economy” of English schooling, due to what is known as the “dual system” that has pertained since the 1944 Butler Act, then we need to think about this hard, and lots of people have.
There is an extremely good book about this, edited by Howard Worsley about 6 years ago, called “Anglican Church School Education: moving beyond the first 200 years.” It contains a wide variety of excellent authors – among them Jeff Astley, Priscilla Chadwick, Trevor Cooling, Julian Stern, Leslie Francis and Andrew Wright – as well as a couple of excellent short papers by Howard Worsley. It is a source book for thinking about church schools in the Anglican system, and complements a number of other more recent books – the two most interesting of which are written by Trevor Cooling, Beth Green, Andrew Morris and Lynn Revell (“Christian Faith in English Church Schools”) and one edited last year by Ros Stuart-Buttle and John Shortt called “Christian Faith, Formation and Education” which takes the philosophical and theological challenges of the Worsley book forward by another few years.
However, much of this thinking is (willingly and in some cases deliberately) constrained by the historical and the practical. The historical, because of the overwhelming influence of the National Society since 1811, governing the purpose of CofE schools. The practical, because CofE schools in England and Wales have been short of cash for a long time, and dependent upon government grants, support and eventual full funding more or less since 1837. It means that CofE schools have had to have regard both to the state and to the state church, rendering them particularly susceptible to co-option by principalities and powers that are mediated through the state. This is not a position everyone would subscribe to (many are just relieved that we have the high profile we currently do as CofE schools) but I make it because I think that sooner or later we will have to start de-linking CofE schools from the constraints of both political theology and churchmanship that are implicit in their history.
The central mission of the church, as described in Ephesians 3:10, is to make manifest the many-multi-coloured (polupoikilitos) glory of God to the principalities and powers. These latter entities are often called angels in the earlier translations but the idea of “principalities and powers” comes closer to what we may think of as the beings in the heavenly realms; they include angelic powers, who have been waiting for the revelation of the glory of Jesus after his ascension and coronation, as well as the fantastic mission of the church which was (earlier in Ephesians 3) to include the gentiles in the great mission and beauty of God’s people.
But, with many anabaptist writers (John Howard Yoder, Alan Kreider, Stanley Hauerwas, Stuart Williams, Walter Wink) I believe that the principalities and powers also include demonic forces, particularly those forces of evil which represent their ungodliness and antipathy to human flourishing through earthly powers that are co-opted by them as a result of disobedience to the rulership of Jesus Christ.
When we find ourselves in conflict with the neo-liberal and managerial state, we are in fact confronting a principality that has taken over the thinking of people’s minds, against their will, and constrained their freedom to think and act by making the “managerial” normal. If that is not a description of a demonic state of affairs, what is?
So what does this all say to the church? And to church schools? For a start, it reminds the church of their true mission to the earth – to proclaim the kingdom of God though the testimony to God’s many-multi-coloured glory and beauty in the lives and witness of the people of God, the church. The church is both institution – i.e. it has been instituted – and organism, as Abraham Kuyper argued in the 1860s, and therefore we have to regard it as both something that is, and that therefore contains a repository of faith and practice, and something that is active and living and effective in the world, seeking to change and grow. Both as institution and as organism it bears the authority of Jesus Christ in and to the world. The world may ignore the church, but that does not invalidate the message, which is rooted in the tradition of the institution and in the power of the organic life of the church. All that can invalidate the message of Jesus’ kingdom are the lives of believers, singly and corporately, not lived to the standard to which they are called. This has long been the tragedy of the church and it continues to be the tragedy. If we are to have a richly plural society, then the church, if it is to have a voice, must bear a voice if integrity and purity, of joy and love, of affection and compassion for the world in which it functions and which it seeks to serve. That we find this harder and harder in our modern age is simply a function of our co-option by the technological, financial and consumerist globalising forces in whose milieu we currently live.
The CofE church school does have some choices, and certain options, about how to position itself with regard to the society it sits in. But to do that it first has to have regard to the historical question. Does the school accept the theological and philosophical/ educational story of which it is a part (the National Society story), or does it see it as something to be resisted and challenged? The trouble with accepting the story is that the NS came with a lot of other theological baggage that constrained the way that a school might think about itself Christianly.
This is the nub. It is not as though we can think about the idea of a Christian school from scratch and then get annoyed that CofE schools do not do that. If we are going to get annoyed that easily, we may as well go down the private Christian school route of Accelerated Christian Education and marginalise ourselves into irrelevance. No, the question is different. Put simply, it is a question of how far we can go as Christian leaders and educators in church schools (both Catholic and CofE) in being prophetic into our culture and our communities? What would it take? What would have to change? And would we need, necessarily, to accept the theological assumptions that were made at the start of the 19th century? For sure, we have no longer accepted the pedagogical assumptions and the educational and curricular assumptions made in 1811, under the Madras system that was envisaged as the only effective way to get a lot of children educated with a minimum of teachers. Educational understanding has moved dramatically since then. Why then do people think it is right to maintain the political theology that underpinned CofE schools when we have jettisoned, for good reasons, the means of instruction and a whole host of other aspects of the life of the school and classroom?
This might be for one of two reasons.
One is that the political theology of Joshua Watson and that of the Hackney Phalanx members who built the theological model of church and state that he used to form the National Society over 200 years ago is still strong and still valid. If this is the case, then that model must meet the demands of the current church-state settlement. This is questionable. I think education has changed completely, and I think that the way that the church regards mission has moved on enormously in the last 40 years, never mind the last 200.
The second reason must be more to do with inertia and the weakening of the church with respect to the state. This, I suspect, is more like the real reason. The Anglican church simply does not have the numbers or the influence with the state to change the way we think of church schooling. We have sold our souls to the neo-liberal, managerial view of education since Thatcher and have adopted its tools as part of the way that we look at education. We have adopted its view of what the common good is, and we have said that the purpose of education is no more or less than that which the state says it is. That (I really hope) has not come from a desire to comply, but from not having the strength to resist.
This at least was the position until the Dearing Report (The Way Ahead) in 2000. The main recommendations of the Dearing Report led to the idea of CofE school Christian distinctiveness, the use of SIAMS inspections to report on that distinctiveness, and to a commitment on behalf of the CofE to open more secondary schools, making use of the very positive view that New Labour had of the role of faith in education.
We are nearly 20 years on from Dearing and much has happened. But from where I sit, the missional understanding of church schools, which was never really a feature of the high-church National Society, is growing. And it is growing in curious ways.
Since the publication of Transforming Mission by David Bosch, there has been a broadening of our understanding of missional Christianity. We think of mission in a range of traditional ways, including evangelism, but also in work for the poor, involvement with families, care for the earth, a nurture of those in the faith and a commitment to the common good. At the same time, there has been a growing call for the church to be thoroughly Christian in its theology and distinctiveness, its discipleship and formation (on the one hand) and more deeply engaged with the world, the earth and politics (on the other). This has led to a fuller understanding of the church as a prophetic voice in our culture, and has, through the work of a range of theologians around the world, among them Walter Brueggemann and Tom Wright, brought to fruition a newer appreciation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ across the whole earth, because of the power of his historic resurrection.
My question is, therefore: why is the church not allowing this new understanding to become part of the life of CofE schools? It could have done, though its Vision for Education three years ago, but I am not convinced that it has happened to the extent that God is calling us to make it happen. Is there something richer? Could the church dare to see its schools as part of its mission to the nation in a way that challenged and unbalanced the appalling educational and managerial orthodoxy that we currently labour under? Could the Anglican church have an anabaptist moment and state clearly that what Jesus has in mind for schools in this country is very different to the tired wheel we are all putting our shoulders to? Dare it suggest that Jesus is Lord of all the earth, and that includes the education of children? And what would that really look like in Church of England schools?