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
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
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.
I've felt very at home in some of the synagogue services
I've been to, where I've experienced the same sweetness
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
I think the truth-claims of the great religions are very
exciting, not scary. I want to know how we can talk about
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
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
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
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
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