St Bride's: Sermon Series

Faith in our Church Schools

Beware the expert.

An ‘ex’ is a ‘has been’ and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure.  I hope that I am neither of these and I stand before you in humility as a senior, but fallible, ambassador for the Church of England’s five thousand schools.

My prayer for myself this morning is that God will speak through me.  My prayer for you is that your task of listening will not be finished before my task of preaching is finished.  If, however, it is, please feel free to leave quietly.

Thank you, David [Rector of St Bride's], for a slightly ambiguous title as it gives me ‘wriggle room’.  We could view the title as ‘do we have faith in our church schools?’  This is a perfectly reasonable question.  Alternatively, we could interpret the title as being about the state of ‘faith’ in our church schools.

As its mothering Sunday I’m dedicating this sermon to all mothers and mine in particular.  She had three passions: medicine, her simple Christian faith and her belief in education.  She believed in education as a liberating power and that’s why I am where I am today.  All mums see education as important and so our title is fitting today.

Some facts:

If every child currently attending the 4700 Church of England’s schools lined up in single file outside this church the line would stretch as far as Exeter.  About one million children attend our schools and 15 million people alive today went to one.

Our schools are to be found in the inner cities and the rural byways.  We have rural schools with less than fifty pupils and urban ones with over a thousand ethnically diverse pupils.  We have high performing secondaries and brand new academies rising, like phoenixes, in challenging urban areas.

Many independent schools align themselves with the Church of England.  Our schools serve the full social spectrum.  Our schools are equally for those of the Christian faith, those of other faiths, and those of no faith.

The church’s rich heritage of schools predates state education by fifty years.  They were started in 1811, fifty years before State education; we are looking forward to celebrating our bi-centenary very soon.  We are the biggest and most distinctive provider of State education. 

I anchor my thoughts today in two verses of scripture.

In the gospel reading, John told us that ‘whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.’ (repeat).

Just past the end of the reading from Ephesians we Paul wrote: ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (repeat).

I ask you to ponder the relevance of these verses as my tale unfolds.

Please now think of polystyrene, ice and lead.  A block of polystyrene floats on top of water. It is susceptible, in a problematic way, to every breath of wind, every ripple or wave, and any external force acting upon it. It is, in short, vulnerable.  Now, a block of ice floats with about ninety percent of its mass below the waterline.  This iceberg shape has great stability, providing a visible superstructure underpinned by a core mass which keeps it afloat. A block of lead, on the other hand, simply sinks to the bottom when placed in water.  It is too dense to float.

These analogies apply appropriately to schools.

Schools overburdened with dogma or overstretched by bureaucracy, or afflicted by misplaced accountability, or driven by over zealous convictions are like blocks of lead.  They simply capsize and sink.  Either that or they require Herculean efforts to keep them afloat.

Conversely, schools which are susceptible to educational fashions or the latest theories of pedagogy, or the whims and demands of their ‘kidult’ parent bodies are like blocks of polystyrene.  They are unanchored and susceptible to whims and fashions.  They cannot act as transmitters of a values based culture.  They cannot enable each young person to stand on someone else’s shoulders and see further.  They cannot transpose knowledge into wisdom.

By elimination you will have noted my preference is the ‘iceberg’ analogy and so my thesis is that Church schools fall into this category.  Indeed, this is the case, and I offer you now the reasons for my belief.

A recent visit to one of our secondary schools in Sunderland captured the sentiment for me.  Amid the hurly burly of several hundred gregarious and vociferous teenagers there was something special, something to be treasured, something entirely distinctive.  I paused in a corridor and thought for a moment.

Yes, all the gospel values and attributes associated with a caring and emotionally sensitive community were present, as indeed they were in both of the secular comprehensives that I had led.  But there was something else that was special.

This ‘specialness’ was more than the celebration of the Eucharist, more than the use of prayer, more than their contribution to third world sustainability – all of which were outstanding.  It took a while, but then it came to me, straight from the words of my favourite hymn: ‘be still for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place.’

And that’s what was so special – a distinctiveness brought about by the confident and overt recognition of the living God, at work throughout the place, impacting on all people and affecting the way they looked at life.  The Kingdom was being built, brick by brick, in this place in the North East.  Children, created in the image of God, were being nurtured into Koinonia.  They were more than just a community; they were bound together by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The visible superstructure of this school is underpinned by both gospel values and an open and confident expression of the living God.  But, before we get too carried away in a romantic and idealistic fervour, we need to note that this was an inclusive school.  Those of no faith were welcomed without question, but were not proselytised. For those of other faiths there was open acceptance of both similarity and difference.  For those of the Christian faith there was opportunity for affirmation, growth and sharing.

It’s dangerous to generalise from the particular but I know this example is by no means unique.   The Church of England’s many schools share distinctiveness and a sense of purpose that is at least special and often overwhelming.  My experience of our schools is that they are neither proselytising nor extreme.

They are usually ordinary places where, more often than not, extraordinary things happen.  This, I believe and assert, as in the block of ice, is because of he underpinning.  That is, the values and beliefs, the faith and the heritage, the close interweaving of church, parish and school, the wonderful admix of the spiritual and the pedagogical.

When John wrote ‘whoever lives by the truth comes into the light’ and when Paul wrote ‘we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works’ they each laid down the challenge for the distinctive nature our schools. Of course, they hadn’t got schools in mind.

But we have.  Our teachers, headteachers, governors, diocesan boards of education and those of us at the National Society and Education Division of the Archbishop’s Council believe in and nurture these streams of thought.  We see evidence of people who live by the truth and who emerge into the light.  We see, time and time again, the good works being done in the name of Jesus because we know that our children are the workmanship of God.

So, should we have faith in our church schools?  Unequivocally I say yes!

Is faith alive and well in our church schools?  Unequivocally I say yes!

But we cannot be comfortable or complacent.  Our schools are often in the spotlight and the heat potentially eats away at both the superstructure and the underpinning – just as global warming melts the icebergs.  We are constantly being challenged; constantly being wrongly  accused of exclusivity; constantly being wrongfully accused of extremism, creationism or whatever fad currently exercises the minds of those who feel there is no place for church schools in our State system. 

I fear that our nation’s schools are becoming like the blocks of lead in my analogy.  I fear that, alternatively, they may lose their values framework altogether and become factory like – akin to the polystyrene blocks adrift on the ocean tides.

I therefore advocate that the underpinning of gospel values and the overt and confident expression of a living God to be found in our church schools gives confidence, gives assurance, gives stability, gives light and gives hope in our precarious society.  The hope, I believe, lies in the shining beacon of our church schools.  Today and tomorrow, just as they did in the nineteenth century, our schools can lead the way by being examples of hope, unity and faith for a beleaguered and fractured society.

In 2001 the Dearing Report on church schooling spoke of the opportunity the church has to fulfil its mission to the people through its schools. Since then, nearly one hundred new church secondary schools have opened and there are lots more to come.  Each of these, along with the thousands of existing schools, is another beacon of that distinctive and highly prized values and beliefs driven education that so many people want for their children. As a colleague said to me the other day, several million parents can’t be wrong!

Your lent sermon series asks if faith in the institutional church is a dinosaur or dynamo.

Sitting at my desk in Church House tomorrow morning I know it will feel like a dynamo!  I will be pedalling hard to keep the lights alight!  But, you know, that dynamo feeling is there, day in and day out because we are continually engaged in re-creation.  What applied in 1811 is not what’s needed in 2011, but the underpinning is the same.

We will not become extinct because we re-create.  Paul Avis in his book on the identity of Anglicanism talked of our mandate to revise, to recreate to update.  In 1811 we started building parish schools. In 2011 we will build new academies.  We adapt and therefore will not become extinct.

So what do we take away with us from today’s sermon?  What, I wonder will you be chatting over at lunch later this morning?  How will you describe this sermon to someone who, sadly, overslept this morning?  Or the person in the next pew who slept soundly throughout!

I hope it will be a greater understanding of both the quantity and quality of our church schools.  I hope you will recognise that our schools are both places of faith and worthy of our faith.  I hope you will see them as essential parts of our rich educational tapestry and diversity.  I hope you will pray for all who work in them and for all who attend them.

I leave you with both words of comfort and words of challenge.

The comfort is to be found in the example I provided of the school in Sunderland.  I assure you this can be seen many, many, times across the nation.  Schools like this, our precious Church of England schools, have each day a real impact on the lives of all those children in the line stretching from here to Exeter. 

The challenge comes in your personal and collective willingness to protect, defend and advance our Church of England schools.

Put one way, do you want your schools to be analogous to polystyrene, ice or lead?

Put a second way, are you willing to support the idea that schools should be places where, in the stillness of the moment, the presence of God can be felt?

Put a third way (and paraphrasing John), do you want to support schools where the truth becomes the light?

Put a fourth way (and paraphrasing Paul), do you want God’s workmanship to be the foundations for doing good works?

Let us each, in a moment of personal prayer, reflect on these things.  Amen

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