I am reading a book that I would, had I the money, give to every pastor (or vicar – perhaps especially vicars) of every church that I had ever met. It is Michael Goheen’s The Church and its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2018). As a summary of Lesslie Newbigin’s thinking it is unparalleled, and reinforces (and predates, in many ways) the work that Tom Wright has been urging Christians towards for the last 30 years. I am absorbed currently in the section on Newbigin’s understanding of the missionary encounter with culture – particularly Western culture. This speaks right into the heart of how we as Christians have become so modernist and positivist in our approach that we cannot see the degree to which we have been subverted and co-opted into western culture. Newbigin has addressed this in both of the books he has written that I have read this last year – Proper Confidence (on the nature of knowledge) and The Open Secret (an introduction to missiology), but it is most fully addressed in one that is still on my reading list: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
However, Goheen provides a wide ranging discussion of each aspect of Newbigin’s thinking on the church and I am grateful to Jon Kuhrt for bringing the book to my notice. There is much more to get from it than I can possibly do justice to in this blog, but I came across a question that brought me up short, and which speaks to the heart of what I am thinking about in my doctoral work:
How can Christians fall in line with the idolatrous purpose of public education?
This absolutely essential question (found on p.147 if you are blessed enough to have a copy of the book to hand) is fundamental to the work of church schools, or at least it is to those of them that conceive of themselves as Christian. It certainly takes a well-honed axe to the wishy-washy concept of Christian distinctiveness, and forces them to think about exactly how they have positioned themselves philosophically with regard to the stated national economic purpose of education that has become the orthodoxy since the Education Reform Act of 1988.
That God in Christ longs for a different purpose in educating than do the neoliberal principalities that have controlled education in Britain through successive governments since the ERA, is plain to even the most basic reading of scripture. Those working in the (largely private) Christian schools of North America and Australia, whether tertiary or K-12, have written volumes on this subject – yet even in their more rarified Christian atmosphere, they have often struggled to find a form of educating that does justice to both reason and faith. They have tried, though, and valiantly. I am not convinced, to be blunt, that we have tried so hard in our English state-run “church school” culture, where class distinctions and “we know what is best for the children” cultures run amok. At present, it seems too revolutionary, and leaders’ eyes are focused elsewhere, on budgets and defending their schools from the inspectorate.
For now, I leave the question niggling to those who feel that it applies to them. Here it is again, in a little more context:
In a paper on education, he (Newbigin) grapples with the question of how Christians can be involved in the public school system when there are two different understandings of education based on two different visions of the purpose of human life. The secular state mandates that education fall in line with their purpose of national interest based on their public doctrine. Yet their “secular” involvement in the school system will bring a tension with their “apostolic” calling to be faithful to the gospel. How can Christians fall in line with the idolatrous purpose of public education? Faithfulness in the midst of this painful tension may bring suffering…
Quoting Newbigin on this (from a book called Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, 1963, Paternoster), Goheen continues:
The idea that we ought to be able to expect some kind of neutral secular political order, which presupposes no religious or ideological beliefs, and which holds the ring impartially for a plurality of religions to compete with one another, has no adequate foundation. The New Testament makes it plain that Christ’s followers must expect suffering as a the normal badge of their discipleship and also as one of the characteristic forms of their witness.
Unlike many in the Church of England school system, Newbigin was convinced of the “incompatibility of the gospel with the dominant doctrine shaping culture and public institutions” (Goheen, p. 148).
I too am convinced of that. I am currently writing a paper which demonstrates precisely the need for school leaders in Church of England schools to model a form of leadership and build school communities that will deliberately undermine the “dominant doctrine” and in so doing provide an attractiveness and beauty that will draw families to them. Like iron and other metals within quartz distorting the silica lattice so that white light is absorbed and refracted into emitting the beautiful purple of amethyst, so church schools with a deliberately Christian practice will distort the dominant doctrine (even whilst being pressured by it) and release a witness of beauty rarely seen in English education. This is already starting in some places, and I look forward to more missional church schooling of this sort.