Interview: Patrick Moriarty, acting head teacher

by
21 September 2012

'I've been asked: "Are you sure you're not Jewish?"'

I'm the Acting Head Teacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School [JCoSS] in Barnet - the first school of its kind in the UK.
 
It all started when a group of parents in the late 1990s felt the need for a Jewish school that would cater for the children of Reform, Liberal, and Masorti Jewish families, as well as Orthodox. Until recently, all the Jewish schools had been under the auspices of the Orthodox community.

It's one of only two parent-pro­moted schools under the Labour Government to make it into exist­ence; and, as a Jewish ecumen­ical school, it aims to do equal justice to every different strand of Jewish tradition in its teaching as well as its admissions criteria. We do have a Muslim student, a few Christians, a Buddhist . . . but 99 per cent of the students are Jewish.
 
The team who appointed me believed that it was more important to have the right person for the job than to have necessarily a Jewish person - though they did advertise internationally, because many gifted Jewish teachers work abroad. But, of course, they wouldn't have ap­pointed just anyone. It had to be some­­one supportive of the Jewish community.
 
I grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, went to the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, read Theology, and had a wonderful time teaching Religion and Philosophy at the Haberdashers' Aske's Girls' School, all very much in the north London universe.

I was wondering what to do next; so I was really excited when a colleague suggested I applied for the deputy head's post at JCoSS. I got the job, and, when the head teacher was offered a job, he couldn't refuse in Australia, I found myself in charge of the school.
 
Society is muddled about what edu­cation is for, because it's muddled about what people are for. The mess over exams is symptomatic of that deeper problem.
 
The debate over results this sum­mer is interesting. It's clear that there has been grade inflation, and that therefore a devaluation was needed (it's interesting that we habitually use economic metaphors here). But the way it has been handled has made the political in­fluences uncomfortably clear. Some influence is right and good - the taxpayers need to be able to hold the system they pay for to account; but if a pass-rate seems to change so dramatically, it suggests that some­thing has gone wrong in the checks and balances.
 
I'm a cradle Anglican, but my love for God was really inspired by David Lindsay, my school chaplain, who came in my third or fourth year there. He offered a fascinating intel­lectual foundation for the Christian faith, combined with a boldness in articulating it and turning it into worship. He carried the whole school along with it, which was an incred­ible feat to pull off, but he was absolutely accepted and confided in by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian boys alike, without ever comprom-is­ing his Christian integrity. He made me feel that Christianity was not just an academic reality, but the deepest truth one can encounter. That's never gone away.
 
Teachers are in the business of building human beings, and the job of school leaders is to create the en­vironment where that can happen. I'd hope I can be remembered for doing that. I'm humbled when bril­liant former students say my lessons made a difference.
 
As the leader of this Jewish school, I have chosen the Shema as our theme for assemblies. It may seem para­doxical that I'm teaching Jewish students about the central core of their own faith, but I am completely comfortable with Judaism. I want to build mensches, as we would say - good people - and give them a love of learning.

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I've felt very at home in some of the synagogue services I've been to, where I've experienced the same sweetness and joy.

I grew up in north London; so I can walk the walk, talk the talk, shrug the shrug. . . I've been asked: "Are you sure you're not Jewish?" The other teachers are a mixture of Jewish and goyim, and the majority sit lightly to the "God thing"; but for a small core it's about the sweetness of knowing God.
 
I think the truth-claims of the great religions are very exciting, not scary. I want to know how we can talk about truth.

One of my big bugbears is that brittle relativism that says that all religions are the same. They aren't: they flatly contradict each other at key points, and that's what's so fascinating to debate. So there are reasons why I am a Christian and not a Jew, and we all need to be able to explain why we belong to one religion rather than another, beyond accidents of our birth. But I'd rather be stuck in a lift with a passionate Jew or Hindu than a bland relativist.
 
I met Lucy at Habs; we married and had Benedict. I also have two step-children, and three children from my first marriage. This summer, we've had three sets of public exam results to wait for.
 
I attend St Albans Abbey, and what I love about it is the "beauty of holiness". The worship is right, but not fussy, lacy, or prissy. There's a joy, sweetness, and beauty about it, with a lightness of touch: taking God seriously, but not taking the ritual too seriously.

Recently, I was asked to act as sub­deacon because they were short­handed, and that was an extra­ordinarily lovely thing to do. I felt a fraud, dressed up as a vicar, in one sense, but I also felt a strange kind of rightness about it.

I have begun to explore non-stipendiary ministry, and this may be my next move. My father-in-law is an NSM and head teacher. It is some­thing about being able to represent something about God, meaning, moral purpose, values, and vision, not as one's own self, but embodying it for a lot of people.
 
They say cathedral congregations are increasing because cathedrals are impersonal, and people don't want to "get sucked in" when they worship. Actually, I've found it to be quite the opposite.

Coming to the Abbey, I have met so many wonderful models of grown-up Christian discipleship in the clergy and congregation, and it's meant my personal faith is even more alive, goes even deeper.
 
We have to live life forwards, but we can only understand it backwards - if at all. Although I can point with hindsight to lots of significant turn­ing points, at the time I made them, those choices haven't felt so signi­ficant.
 
The disintegration of my first marriage caused great pain on all sides. There were shafts of gold in the darkness, and some of them have woven themselves in wonderful ways into life since then; but it's a sadness that endures.
 
I love France. For very different reasons, I love London, from Hack­ney to Hampstead. Lucy can turn anywhere into a special place, and that's when and where I feel my happiest.

The company is more important than the location, but walking on the Seven Sisters is hard to beat.
 
Music is a huge part of my life, with tastes that are catholic rather than refined. The music I sang and played at school has stayed with me ever since. When I was 14, we did the Chichester Psalms and the Mozart Requiem in one concert - Judaism and Christianity side by side in creative ways again. Bach, any of it, but especially the St Matthew Passion, is certainly the greatest: logically patterned, rule-breaking, and speak­ing the deepest and fresh­est truths.
 
I'm unreasonably affected by the sound of a church organ played with liturgical sensitivity, dignified creativity, and an occasional bit of playful mischief. Wonderful organ­ists can make you smile and move you to tears in the course of a single hymn.
 
Mark is my favourite Gospel. Its rough style and its raw theology appeal much more than Matthew's polish and sanitisation. But I can hear my teachers wincing at such critical naïveté. I had the privilege of being taught by Tom Wright at university, and his lectures on Galatians have made that my favour­ite bit of Paul.
 
Smug, shallow relativism is really irritating - but that's just my opinion.
 
I say a kind of truncated Morning Prayer every day on my journey to school. I ask God to still my restlessness of heart, to remove the false projections of self I put on his throne in his place (both less fearsome and less compassionate than the real thing). I try to pray by name for the people I'm having dealings with that day.
 
I'd like to be locked in a church with Thomas Aquinas. I learn quicker by listening to someone than by failing to read their books, and there's so much to learn from Aquinas. Even when he's wrong it's for the right reasons, and I wonder what such a massive, creative mind could do now, given all the scientific know­ledge we've gained since his time.

Patrick Moriarty was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
www.jcoss.org.uk

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