Forget churches — what about a mission-shaped school?

02 November 2006

WhERE do church schools fit into the Church’s mission? Are they seen as a real life-enhancer for a parish church, as a vital part of a mission-shaped church? Or are they, in practice, just one more thing for a parish priest to cope with?

A former parishioner of mine, soon to be ordained deacon, read Mission-shaped Church as part of his ordination training. He interviewed a number of clergy to assess the impact of the 1998 General Synod Resolution that “church schools stand at the centre of the Church’s mission to the nation.”

The evidence he found was, perhaps not surprisingly, mixed. He said that, while Mission-shaped Church mentions church schools and, indeed, the General Synod resolution, there is little sense of the clear opportunity they offer.

It probably depends on the starting point. Church-planting is where Mission-shaped Church begins; so it is more about doing new things or the existing things differently than about seeing the opportunity in doing the existing things really well (this should not be caricatured as “maintenance”).

All three are needed. As for ministry thinking in a diocese, however positive and imaginative, it has almost inevitably an undertone of reaction to the reducing number of active clergy.

In fact, schools of all kinds are a significant part of the ministry of the great majority of the clergy; but training and preparation for that ministry is still too much of an after-thought.

THERE is a surprising example of schools’ being treated as an after-thought in a sister Church. The predicted decline in the number of priests in the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster seems to have been the trigger for a consultation exercise throughout that diocese. By 2015 there will be 471 priests, little more than half the number that there was in 1975.

The diocese’s so-called “Green Paper” announced the results of the consultation. As I read it, my eye was caught by a paragraph very near the end: “By helping to form the faith of young people, and in many other ways, Catholic schools in the diocese make a vital contribution towards the life of the whole Body of Christ. The diocese needs to extend its consultation to schools to consider how they can contribute to the diocesan ‘vision’.”

Despite the paper’s starting-point, it came as a surprise that a Roman Catholic diocese should treat schools as an after-thought. They represent a massive investment by the Church. The diocese of Westminster has 180 pri-mary schools, 47 secondary schools, two special schools, and two sixth-form colleges.

SOME PEOPLE undoubtedly see their schools as a burden. I heard a Roman Catholic ask recently what real value they were to the Church. Perhaps the answer should have been another question: what value was the Church to them?

The answer someone gave was in terms of what Mission-shaped Church calls “fresh expressions”. The religious life of the school is (or at least can be) authentically “church”. Young people and members of their families, many of whom would not otherwise encounter the Christian gospel, can experience for themselves something of the Christian life.

It also teaches the skill of quietness, and an attitude of awe, of waiting on God. Some German Lutheran bishops were mildly alarmed a few years ago by the practical discipline they observed around English school worship; but entering, sitting, and leaving quietly are things that could be emulated in some of our chummier churches.

And, for the many young people brought up in churchgoing families — who may, as teenagers in the parish church, feel as though they stick out like a sore thumb — the opportunity to participate in worship tailored to them and their peers can be very important .

THERE ARE countless opportunities for mission in church schools (and opportunities sometimes arise in other schools as well).

The Archbishops’ Fresh Expressions initiative, led by Steven Croft, has, on its website: “The Dearing report identified that church schools are at the centre of the Church’s mission to the nation, and connections between school and church show signs of growing. Some church schools have begun after-school groups that become church. These meet late afternoon mid-week, and may or may not be eucharistic.

“They draw primary-school children, parents of both sexes, and grandparents. The more accessible style may suit some newer Christians. Partners of believers can also come, and the comment is often made: ‘We understand what you’re on about.’”

These mid-week after-school groups could grow to the point where they match the reach of the 1950s Sunday schools. They could fail, too, unless they learn some lessons. The death of the Sunday school (at least on Sunday afternoons at three) was the result not only of the arrival of the television, the car, and divorce, although they all played their part. The style and relative lack of skill of the teaching, as well as the venue, also had their part to play.

Stimulating and responding to a spirit of enquiry, and treating learners’ prior attainment with respect, are two keys to good teaching that could turn this round.

MANY school ministries are best exercised by lay people. There are the familiar ones: being a school governor or volunteer helper; chairing or otherwise supporting the Friends of the School committee. A new opportunity is emerging: one of genuine faith-sharing in school time.

The education department of the diocese of Southwell has recently agreed to a joint pilot project with Scripture Union, to train churchgoers for what could become an increasingly important ministry for the future. Religious education in schools (of all kinds) expects pupils to have the opportunity of visiting places of worship, not just to admire the 15th-century clerestory, but to discover from people who habitually worship there something of their religious practices and beliefs.

The Sikh community is said to have developed this opportunity particularly effectively; and there was a recent report that the Muslim Council of Britain is preparing (for sale) a pack of religious symbols and objects to help RE teaching about Islam.

This is an opportunity, if people are prepared to take it, for parish churches to make really strong links with their local schools. During Eastertide, for example, teachers will be looking for lay people from the local church to come into school, or welcome children into church, to talk about what Easter means for them — not bunnies and eggs, but the resurrection of our Lord. Rather than imposing their belief, they will be responding. To do this, they will need help and preparation.

If the Southwell pilot project is successful, it can form the basis of a national programme. They are hoping for remarkable results. People who can talk about their faith to children should be better able to share their faith with other adults.

Canon John Hall is chief education officer for the Church of England.


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