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The chaplain: in the front line of youth ministry

04 July 2014

Despite being misunderstood by politicians and ignored by the Church, school chaplains' ministry is crucial, argues Gordon Parry

SCHOOLS have again hit the headlines because of issues that are very much the concern of all those who take seriously holistic education in a religious context, and its explicit incorporation of moral and spiritual values. This has had repercussions at the highest levels of government, which reveal a profound misunderstanding about how such values are threaded through the life of a school.

A more measured approach to Christian values has, however, been explored by the Bishop of Oxford and chairman of the C of E Board of Education, the Rt Revd John Pritchard. He examined the necessary underpinning of church school communities with Christian moral principles and example (Comment, 23 May). The National Society has also recently published a report on chaplaincy in schools, The Public Face of God, noting the growth in this ministry (News, 30 May).

From my experience as the former head of a non-denominational maintained school, and currently as director of the School Chaplains and Leaders Association (SCALA) and a school governor, I have two overriding concerns. The first is that politicians and many educational advisers seriously misjudge the relationship of spirituality and moral behaviour to the character and functioning of schools.

The second is that the National Society is worryingly slow in understanding the significance of school chaplaincy, and its part in the moral and spiritual growth, and behaviour, of young people (Letters, 6 June).

AFTER their families, schools are where future generations are given the wherewithal - a moral compass - to live a focused, moral life, and to understand themselves, as well as the inconsistencies of the world.Chaplains refract the Christ-light of their calling to all in their schools.

They also support - and at times challenge - leadership teams and governors, who shape the ethos of their schools, and set out a documentary and practical working out of this moral compass.

Chaplains deal all too frequently with the emotional turmoil that often arises either from the journey through adolescence or from challenging life-events that affect individuals or school communities, such as the one that tragically occurred at Corpus Christi College, Leeds, when a teacher was stabbed (News, 2 May).

In spite of what the chairman of the Independent Schools Association said last month about state schools' allegedly failing to teach values, I would argue that no school that is a genuine educational community can function effectively without such a compass, because the school's cohesion depends on a shared set of values which, by and large, are derived in Britain from Christian moral principles.

THE morality of a school is intrinsic to its behaviour as an educational community. Successive governments have consistently failed to understand this point. Instead, they stipulate curricular provision for the inculcation of morality, as if schools had never taken it seriously before, and - just as significantly - as if moral behaviour can be taught in the abstract rather than learned through living in a structured, purposeful community, as most schools are.

The presence of a chaplain in an increasing number of schools is powerful evidence that schools do take it seriously, and are prepared to resource it properly.

The National Society's new report, however, draws attention to the view of many chaplains that they "do not feel that the Church is sufficiently clear about, or affirming of, the place of school chaplaincy within its ministry". They consistently feel that, with some notable diocesan exceptions, they are on the margins of the Church.

They would like some proper acknowledgment that their ministry is of significance to the parishes, deaneries, and dioceses in which they are located, through regular conversations with those who inhabit these structures.

They would also appreciate a recognition that the ministry of chaplaincy is a viable alternative to parish ministry. An invitation from parishes, as well as deanery and diocesan synods, to school chap-lains to present an overview of their ministry as part of the wider ministry, would be an affirming process.

Greater dialogue between schools and parish communities would also be beneficial. SCALA is one of several organisations that is trying to broker such overviews. Those in independent schools feel particularly isolated. 

IT HAS been frustrating to witness the Church's painfully slow awakening to the fact that the "rumour of God" is only ever going to reach the majority of emerging adults through their schools. Only now is there the glimmer of an understanding that ministerial training should include an introduction to school chaplaincy and governance.

Only very recently have representatives from the National Society begun to champion the cause of school chaplaincy. It is encouraging to read that the outgoing Chief Education Officer of the National Society welcomes a recommendation of the report for "new national and diocesan structures that help schools to appoint chaplains, decide on the part they should play and evaluate their work".

Many in the large network of those who have been trying to bring the work of school chaplains to the attention of the main structures of the Church of England believe passionately in the need for practical support for those in schools who are responsible for implementing a Christian moral compass there.

A vital part in this belongs to the school chaplain, the person charged with the spiritual well-being of our young people, and, ultimately, the future of the Church.

The Revd Gordon M. W. Parry writes here in a personal capacity.


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