Feature

POWERFUL CURRENTS: FAITH AND SECULARISM

David Cameron, it seems, is assuming the mantle of Mandela. Not with a long walk to freedom, but a long walk to a greater Britain. Nothing wrong with that, on the surface, but there’s a problem embedded in the narrative.

2015 saw an unprecedented centralisation of power from a government that once talked about autonomy and Big Society. It saw a relentless focus on growing a global economy at the expense of growing people. It saw a sustained, opportunist attack on freedom of speech under the guise of preventing terrorism and, for people of faith, it saw a constant, steady pressure to conform to a liberal, secular ideology. So it all depends on how you define a greater Britain.

Towards the end of 2015, I sent an email about the inspection of private faith schools, the proposed monitoring of out-of-school education settings and the possibility of the state grabbing church school lands and buildings. It amounted, I suggested, to a form of faith cleansing, with only home education remaining uncleansed. I wish I hadn’t written it, because a few days later, Nicky Morgan announced a crackdown on home schooling which was closely followed by Nick Gibb saying that British schools overseas must actively promote an LGBT/gender identity agenda, even if it lands head teachers in prison for doing so. David Cameron chillingly talked about the state being the parent of children in care – not acting in loco parentis, but usurping the parental role. He also now includes ‘loyalty’ as a British value, although, as with all British values, loyalty remains an ill-defined drift net which can be cast wide. A greater Britain, or a totalitarian state, with an imperialist attitude towards the laws of other countries?

Proof of secular creep in our society, should it be needed, came this week from William Nye, a former senior civil servant who now works for the Church of England. He talked frankly about the silencing of Christians and the steady secularisation of our government, shaped by the people who surround and advise the Prime Minister. It’s not the done thing to be a Christian in the civil service. Or in education. Or anywhere else in public life.

So why does the government appear to espouse the Christian faith? I would suggest that its reasons are two-fold. One is to maintain the warm, cosy glow engendered by nominal belief in a benign God and a Church of England which is perceived as being as much a British value as fish and chips, or cricket on the village green. The other is more cynical: the government needs Christians’ commitment, time and money in order to sustain social welfare programmes that it couldn’t possibly fund centrally. The government really needs Christians in order to create a greater Britain. It just doesn’t want the inconvenient faith that motivates our actions.

But there’s another picture of 2015. It’s one of the many, many Christians working in education; of parents and carers involved in a myriad of ways in their local schools; of burgeoning Prayer Spaces in Schools and of rapid increases in Open the Book assemblies. TLG has experienced similar growth as it meets the needs of students who struggle on the fringes of education and whose families struggle on the fringes of society. It’s a picture of churches who embrace the idea of loving their local school; of people who feed hungry children and of those at Pray for Schools who find endlessly creative ways to encourage us all to pray for education.

The Bible often uses river imagery to describe things that threaten to overwhelm us and also to describe our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit – there are, apparently, 4260 biblical references to rivers or streams. As we’ve seen yet again this winter, water is a mighty force that cannot be stopped. As Christians, we are rivers of living water (John 7:37-39), a mighty force which cannot be stopped by human endeavour. And so it is with the many rivers of living water that flow through education.

There are too many organisations to mention them all here, but one of the aims of Christians in Education this year is to profile as many of them as possible and create a database of those profiles. Another aim is to encourage more churches to love their local school and a third aim is to support Christian teachers to live boldly.

Looks like 2016 is going to be a busy year of challenge, inspiration and encouragement ….