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Letters to the Editor

03 August 2018

Church schools’ admissions policy, the Ball inquiry, and preventing the weaponisation of the Christian identity


Church schools’ admissions policy makes their ethos

From Dr Peter Shepherd

Sir, — The main problem with the report on church-school admissions (News, 20 July) is that, like C of E policy since at least 2000, it ignores the question of rationale: why have C of E — or, indeed, faith — schools at all? In fact, ignoring this critical question leads inevitably to faith schools’ opponents’ asking: if C of E schools are broadly like any other school in what they teach, and the communities that they serve, why have them at all? Why not simply have a monochrome state educational system?

It is a question (as, at least, the Church and its inspection system have recognised) of distinctiveness. But what should be the nature of that distinctiveness? The traditional answer has been couched in terms of the “Christian ethos” of the school. But how can that ethos be real if the school community is only partially or even hardly Christian? It is the community that makes the school, not the curriculum.

The provision of education is never neutral. That is a human impossibility: no one lives in a vacuum. Every educational context is potentially biased or specifically shaped in some way. No subject, other (perhaps) than the “pure” discipline of mathematics, is immune to some kind of ideological “spin”. All schools have an ethos, planned or otherwise, in which teachers and pupils interact, and in which values of some kind or another are inculcated: every school has its own culture.

It surely follows that, within a democratic society, parents ought to have some kind of choice regarding the culture in and from which their children are educated. That may be religious; or it may arise out of some other culture in which pupils gather together, celebrate, and commiserate with each other, using texts and words that carry meaning for them (perhaps, for some, the texts of socialism?).

There is one important caveat: schools are in the business of education (promoting understanding of different ideas), not proselytisation. Every school, regardless of ethos, must deliver an education that prepares pupils for the world in which they live. Evangelical Christian schools, therefore, should not be permitted to promote Creationism, as that contradicts widely accepted human knowledge.

All schools, faith-based or not, should deliver a programme of religious education which promotes considered critical thinking and other important skills (such as the ability to interrogate religious texts).

The point is this: it does not make any sense for a child to be educated in a context that is inimical to, or even contradicts, the values and priorities of the home. That leads only to confusion. That is why school communities ought to be made up of those whose lives and values best match the context in which education is offered. If not, then there will always a fundamental mismatch between lives lived at school and those lived at home.

(Former head of Canon Slade School, Bolton)
Homestead, Eastham Street
Clitheroe BB7 2HY

From the Revd Dru Brooke-Taylor

Sir, — All should unite to resist and oppose — root and branch, and without compromise — the latest effort by Charles Clarke and Professor Woodhead to undermine Christian education in this country.

Consistently, the Roman Catholics have got this right, and we haven’t. The original deal for them was that the RCs provided schools that came within the state system, but it was accepted that they were there to provide Christian education with an unequivocal RC ethos. Primarily, this was for their own children. Non-RC children were welcome to take up surplus places, but had to accept that the school was RC and designed for RCs.

For reasons that derive partly from long-forgotten interdenominational bickering in the 19th century about church rates, and partly from a fond and long-obsolete assumption that society is more implicitly Christian than it has been either for a long time or ever, the Church of England has been reluctant to come to terms with how, for at least the past 50 years, our circumstances are now comparable to the situation that inspired the RCs originally to provide their own schools.

To get to fundamentals: if we are putting the effort that we do into running schools, the reason has to be much more than some vaguely benevolent aspiration to serve society. It has to be that we want to further the Kingdom of heaven by providing a Christian education that strives to bring up children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. If we don’t believe that, then, to put it bluntly, we should not be directing our effort into schools. We should be doing something else.

If our schools are doing that, we are also defaulting on our duties as parents if we do not insist that we want to ensure our own children can go to them.

On all this, the Roman Catholics are right. Mr Clarke and Professor Woodhead are not just wrong, but, both philosophically and theologically, seriously wrong.

2 Oldfield Road, Hotwells
Bristol BS8 4QQ

Ball inquiry, safeguarding, and C of E policy on permission to officiate  

From the Rt Revd Dr Oliver Simon

Sir, — The recently revised policy on clergy who hold permission to officiate (PTO) (News, 27 July) follows the evident failure of trust because of the behaviour of a limited number of holders of this permission. The policy appreciates what the majority holding PTO have to contribute, and further acknowledges that their experience and competencies have not always been part of the mindset of those in leadership. So far, so good; only time will tell if this response, produced under the glare of critical judgement of the lack of regulation in this area in the reports and inquiries into the Church of England’s handling of the abuse of vulnerable people, is over-zealous or insufficient.

Is it a way to rebuild trust? In part, yes: I refer to the idea of review, which the policy advances. I wonder, however, whether those likely to be charged with this — incumbents, area deans, etc. — are on board. In some dioceses, there are more active retired clergy than stipendiaries.

Where the policy errs on the regulative at the expense of the restorative, there are snares. Its focus is on function; is someone capable of fulfilling public ministry? If not, or for other reasons that, it seems, do not have to be declared, the bishop has absolute power to withhold his or her permission. Surely, alarm bells ought to be ringing. This is precisely what the reports on, and inquiries into, abuse are about: what happens when power is exercised in ways that are not easy to challenge. We need, therefore, a more nuanced response; the policy ought to have a review date attached to it.

The Church has been greatly assisted in its thinking by the reflective work of the Faith and Order Commission. May I ask that the Commission do some work on the nature of Orders? To offer a particular scenario: is a consequence of this policy that a faithful minister of word and sacrament, full of years, inhibited in the public celebration of his or her jubilee of ordination because the bishop has determined that he or she should not hold permission to officiate? “A priest for ever . . .”: do we still believe that?

Colcombe Mill Cottage
Colyton EX24 6EU

From the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain

Sir, — The diocese of Oxford has issued a statement about the granting of permission to officiate to Lord Carey (News, 27 July). In it there is mention of “no legal reason” to deny Lord Carey’s request for PTO. PTO is, of course, granted entirely at the discretion of the local bishop, which is what enables bishops to deny PTO to gay and lesbian married clergy, who have done nothing more than legally marry.

The statement also speaks of Lord Carey’s need for a “safe space” in which to exercise his ministry, a safe space that is already involving accepting invitations to preach in places other than his home “safe space” — but absolutely no mention that he failed to pass evidence to the police about, and sought to protect and reassure, a serial abuser.

There is also a great deal about the fulsome support that Lord Carey can look forward to receiving from the diocese of Oxford and the National Safeguarding Team, while many of us have observed with horror the evidence at the IICSA hearings about the denial of support and comfort to Bishop Ball’s victims.

If the hierarchy wants to be taken seriously about safeguarding and its desire to continue to be responsible for it, free of external oversight, then it is going to have to wake up to what such actions look like to the public, the victims of abuse, and the majority of church people, to whom it looks very much like the protective old boys’ network hard at work.

The Old Vicarage, 23 High Street
Chapel-en-le Frith
Derbyshire SK23 0HD

From Mr Richard W. Symonds

Sir, — What has emerged from the IICSA hearing about Peter Ball is an unbelievable account of chaos, cover-up, callousness, and incompetence within the dark corners of the Church of England’s highest echelons.

Maybe it is time for the Bishops’ “purple circle”, as described by the abuse survivor the Revd Graham Sawyer, collectively to take responsibility and follow the example of the Bishops of Chile, by offering their resignations en bloc to the Church’s Supreme Governor, the Queen.

“The bishops’ move came after Pope Francis said the Chilean church hierarchy was collectively responsible for ‘grave defects’ in handling sexual abuse cases, and the resulting loss of credibility suffered by the church. He accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests” (The Guardian).

The Bell Society
2 Lychgate Cottages
Ifield Street, Ifield Village
Crawley, West Sussex
RH11 0NN

Preventing weaponisation of Christian identity 

From Mr Ian Marchant

Sir, — Andrew Brown wonders, in his excellent column (Press, 20 July), how the Left might deal with those who would weaponise Christian identity, and warns of Tim Stanley’s “half-Bannon and half-balderdash” narrative, where the “West” is under threat from external Muslim identity and internal traitors (from whom I’m hoping for an approach).

It seems to me that one vital function of a Christian Left is to see that any Bannonite “coalition of resentment” is not able to cover itself in the “religious coating” that Mr Brown writes about so eloquently.

If Professor Richard Dawkins feels able to claim Christianity-as-Englishness as his identity, then it is not, by definition, Christian.

Fold Granary, Broad Street
Powys LD8 2AG

The real hard lesson of Srebrenica 

From Mr Brian Knight

Sir, — The article by the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urqhart, on the “hard lessons of Srebrenica” (Comment, 6 July) omits consideration of what many would consider the hardest and most important lesson of all. That is, that good intentions and noble words will not protect the weak and defenceless from a ruthless antagonist unless they are backed by force, or at least the threat of force.

At the height of the conflicts in the Balkans, the UN set up a safe haven in the Srebrenica region, manned by Dutch troops. In the event, this proved to be not so much a safe haven as a death trap, because, when Serb forces arrived there, searching for Bosnian males, the Dutch troops offered no resistance. Indeed, the UN decision had unintentionally benefited the Serbs, because it had gathered together their targets in one place. The massacre of more than 8000 Bosnian men and boys followed.

If the Dutch guardians had confronted and resisted the Serbs, it is not difficult to imagine a completely feasible alternative scenario. The Serbs would have withdrawn (especially if the Dutch had called up reinforcements), there would have been no massacre, Bosnian families would not have been deprived of fathers and sons, tensions between the Serb and Bosnian communities would not have hardened, trust in the UN would have been maintained, and General Mladic, the Serb commander, could have enjoyed a serene retirement instead of serving a life sentence in prison for superintending the massacre.

45 Linden Avenue
Prestbury, Cheltenham
Gloucestershire GL52 3DR

The ‘dispensable’ priest still needs to go visiting 

From Mr Anthony Acton

Sir, — Few would argue with the Revd Andy Griffiths that “Clergy should refuse to be indispensable” (Comment, 20 July), but, as a recently retired Reader in a rural parish, I would like to make a couple of points.

First, Andy, as a “Bubble Daddy” to his young daughter, had much in common with other young professionals. My seven-year-old grandson wrote at the end of term that his hopes for next year were “to see my Mummy and Daddy”. My son’s work takes him all over the country, and his children often don’t see him at all during the working week. For many families, work now potentially intrudes into their lives 24/7. How to cope?

I suggest that isolation is the real enemy. All too often, it seems to me, clergy still feel the need to maintain a certain distance between themselves and the laity. That is asking for trouble. Very few people can sustain a demanding job without the support of the friendships that naturally develop through working together. A change of culture is needed so that clergy treat members of their congregations as equal colleagues in a common enterprise — even, perhaps, as friends.

Second, I hope that clergy reading Mr Griffiths’s article will not be too quick to jump at his idea of suddenly refusing to make any pastoral visits, to teach the village to respect the work of the lay pastoral-care team. If a village community is used to receiving pastoral care from its incumbent, the unexplained withdrawal of such care can have a disastrous effect on the church’s relations with the village. Everyone then loses. Handle this subject, please, with care.

Forge House, Corston
Bath BA2 9AJ

From the Rt Revd David Wilbourne

Sir, — The Revd Andy Griffiths’s article drove me to review my own take on visiting. When I served my title in Middlesbrough in the 1980s, my training incumbent insisted that I visit at least 20 homes per week, reporting back on each visit at the staff meeting on Monday morning. He gave what could have been burdensome a positive spin: “Don’t mope about in the church or office feeling hard done by; get out and be cheered by the people you encounter.”

Archbishop David Hope, whose episcopacy was deeply rooted in parish ministry, talked about having the nerve not to visit those who would flatter you, but, rather, to visit curmudgeons with a critical acumen who would tell you straight.

In more than 21 years in parish ministry, I must have visited more than 15,000 homes. Those visits were a cocktail of being massively ministered to by kindly folk, being inspired by significant faith, or having my own lesser tragedies put into perspective by the often heartbreaking tragedy that crossed my path.

Those I visited wrote my sermons for me, and my book Shepherd of Another Flock contains the detailed story of 55 such folk. I suppose the Gospels are the story of God’s despairing of all the well-intended ministry teams of Old Testament times, and visiting us in great humility himself, the ultimate example of management by walking on the shop floor. Bumping into widows of Nain, Jairuses, centurions and bleeding women, Jesus was sensitive but selective.

In a groaning creation, where every troubled soul was crying out for a visit, Jesus marvellously attended to those who crossed his path, while not paralysing himself by thrashing about with worry over the millions he had neglected.

I never saw myself as an expert, taking Christ out to a needy world. Rather, I styled myself as an ecclesiastical Morse, a detective simply searching for Christ using the identikit picture amply provided by the Gospels. And, boy, did I find him. But, if you never go looking. . .

8 Bielby Close, Scarborough
North Yorkshire YO12 6UU

From Canon Adrian Copping

Sir, — The potential to achieve growth by refusing to put the Vicar at the centre of all aspects of parish life is well described by the Revd Andy Griffiths. It is surely part of God’s will for the Church.

Several years ago, in a group of five parishes in North Wales, I was faced with a reduction from three available priests on a Sunday to just me. With a wide group of laity, we examined three options: do less; do more together; more people do more and be released and enabled to do so by the incumbent.

The third option was a clear favourite. To make it work, we needed to identify and train worship leaders and pastoral assistants, arrange suitable professional administrative support, agree a pattern of worship which kept the importance of the eucharist but also highly valued other forms, and accept that teamwork and sharing of resources across the five parishes were essential.

The Bishop there often used to point out that there were now fewer ordained ministers than at any time in the history of the Church in Wales, but more ministers in total. If we believe that “calling” is not just something for the ordained, then the response to the decline in clergy numbers (and maybe even decline itself) suggests that God is calling the whole Church to this way of working. I can certainly vouch that it is a joyful experience.

57 Briar Hill, Woolpit
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk IP30 9SD

Mary Shelley’s theology by literary allusion 

From Canon Alison Milbank

Sir, — It was excellent to see Mary Shelley’s literary achievement marked by two fascinating articles (Faith and Features, 6 July). In the second of these, the Revd Stephen Brown, charting Shelley’s cultural afterlife, argued for a more positive construal of Frankenstein’s godlike project on the grounds of an allusion to Dante’s Ulysses.

In fact, Shelley uses Inferno 26 several times to support a critique of Frankenstein, because Ulysses speaks from a forked tongue of flame in the circle of the fraudulent counsellors, and his voyage is an image of perverse transcendence of human limits.

Shelley does her theology through literary allusion. In a later novel, Valperga (1823), she mounts a moving defence of Christianity in Dantesque language. She moves far beyond her father’s and husband’s various Prometheanisms towards a more religious understanding of creaturehood and creativity.

This certainly excludes altogether support for any Frankenstein-type experiments on our humanity.

Associate Professor of Literature and Theology, University of Nottingham
Burgage Hill Cottage, The Burgage
Southwell NG25 0EP

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