Hard on the heels of last week’s blog, which raised questions about the over-looked value of a distinctive Christian education and the right of parents to choose one, came Living with Difference, a report from the self-appointed Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. To read the report, you might be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is done for; all that remains is to neutralise collective worship, place RE in central control and close faith schools. Et voila, neutralism becomes the new social orthodoxy. Job done.
Except, of course, it isn’t that easy, because as Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England pointed out, ‘nobody comes from nowhere’. The neutral public space so often advocated by liberal secularists and espoused by this Commission as a fair solution to pluralism cannot exist. We all believe something and, in doing so, necessarily reject everything else. But liberal orthodoxy is mistaken to assume that in rejecting everything else, we are implicitly rejecting and disrespecting all those people who believe differently. The opposite, I would suggest, is often nearer to the truth.
The route to a fair and just society is not to do God less, but to do God more. The report, in fairness, does suggest doing God more in the context of RE teaching. But it also simultaneously argues for an inter-faith amalgam in which every belief system loses its distinctiveness. Everyone gets a bit of something. Uniformity masquerades as unity. Conformity poses as cohesion. A little bit of God does you good. Too much God does not.
And when it comes to faith schools, the report really does reflect how conflicted society is about religious belief. Rolling out the tired old argument about faith schools being socially divisive, it recommends their closure not because there is proof that they actually are divisive, but because there is no proof that they are not. Ponder on the double think in that statement. Not innocent until proven guilty. Just guilty due to absence of proof of guilt.
Faith schools were picked on again this week when the primary school league tables were published showing, allegedly, that faith schools have tightened their grip on the rankings. The media claimed, in statements wilfully free of evidence, that this is because they select the most academically gifted on the basis of church attendance. Anyone who thinks that has never been inside an inner city faith school, or a church school with a 90% Muslim intake.
Their success, as Nigel Gender’s, the C of E’s Chief Education Officer was quick to point out, is because ‘the commitment to the flourishing of every child and the strong Christian ethos of our schools drives high standards and performance but, more importantly, promotes the well-being of all the children we serve.’ Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service also pointed out (from evidence) that Catholic primary schools ‘are more ethnically diverse than the average school and take in significantly more children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.’
So what’s going on? I would suggest a form of faith cleansing. The new Education and Adoption Bill gives the state a mandate to seize the land and buildings of any church school which fails to prepare children for life in modern Britain. In other words, all faith schools which want to maintain a distinctive faith ethos will be taken over for failure to conform to the liberal secularist social orthodoxy.
Some in the DfE were, apparently, disappointed with the Living with Difference report – Nicky Morgan is reported to be a big fan of faith schools. But what if her definition of a faith school differs from yours or mine? Easy. Just take it over and force it to meld into the new neutral amalgam. That way, the state gets it hands on the highest performing schools. What the advocates of the new neutralism overlook is that in removing the distinctive faith ethos of these schools, they will remove the very thing that makes them so successful.
I think the report is right in saying that ‘Certainty about faith identity in a wider society which is uncertain about national identity and cohesion, and security and safety, may be perceived by others to be inappropriately assertive and therefore confrontational and destabilising’. But reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated. Those who hope to marginalise faith and recreate modern Britain as a secular society need to understand that a society at ease with itself (the sort of utopia for which this Commission hopes) is one where its people have genuine freedom. It’s a society where diversity is celebrated, not cleansed. It’s a society built from strong families and mature communities, committed to the common good regardless of belief, ethnicity or culture.
Whatever the neutral lobby might hope, Christianity isn’t headed for the margins any time soon.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Leeds Prayer Spaces in Schools conference. I chose to talk about the power of stories. Why? Because stories are fundamental to our understanding of the world and they are the way we find a meaningful place in it.
I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people around. I’ve not only spent much of my life teaching, I’ve also spent most of that time, as a teacher of English and music, immersed in stories. What could be better than introducing students to other people’s stories through literature and music, and then helping them to tell their own stories in words and sound? It really doesn’t get any better: I was storifying in a range of media long, long before the power of stories was realised.
So imagine my delight this week when I came across the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values’ report ‘Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy Through Stories’. The Foreword begins:
‘Only human beings can tell stories. And only human beings can pass them along. To communicate what matters most, we share great narratives from literature, as well as stories from our own lives. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 216) argues that our lives are so deeply narrative that we can only answer the question: ‘What am I to do [with my life]?’ If we can answer the question: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
Stories are fun. Stories motivate. Stories spark imagination. They help us to form knowledge; to make sense of our daily experiences and our memories. Stories are where we dream. But above all, stories are universal and it’s through their universality that we build relationships, understanding what it means to be human and learning how to live well with others.
As a Christian and a teacher, this has a particular resonance and it’s one that needs to be understood by all those who clamour for schools and colleges to be secular, neutral spaces. Apart from the fact that neutrality is impossible (everybody believes something), my faith is integral to my story. It informs my understanding of the world around me. It shapes who I am. I can no more leave my faith in the car park when I go into a school than I can leave my personality.
When Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board separated children from their daemons, creativity, intelligence and will were reduced; sometimes even obliterated. And so it is with the content of people’s stories. You cannot separate people from any part of their unique story and still retain whole, vibrant, creative people.
An article in The Conversation this week examined the increasingly vehement debate about religion and secularism, while a group of parents, with the backing of the British Humanist Association, is going to court to get humanism included in the RE syllabus. What this actually says is that we have become unwilling to listen to each other’s stories and as a result, we no longer have the necessary vocabulary to discuss them. So how can we make sense of what is happening in our schools, our communities, our society and our world when belief plays such a significant role in its events?
I would suggest that we could do so through stories. We live in a pluralist society, so no one story should dictate social orthodoxy. We should learn to respect each other’s stories and the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them. Christians and other people of faith are often accused of indoctrination and proselytisation as a means of trying to separate them from their stories in the public square. Why?
It’s in the values that we all share that our stories overlap and offer hope of a better future. Maybe one reason why faith schools are so successful in nurturing rounded humans is because those values aren’t just discussed. They are worked out in practice, in the messy business of everyday living in community. And in doing so, those values become virtues.
So instead of trying to impose a singular, secular ideology, why not find common ground in the nurturing of those virtues that we all share, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. When that happens, nobody will need to silence those with whom they don’t agree. We won’t need an Equalities Act to enforce by statute what we are currently unable to do by individual will – respect each other regardless. Just because.
I am Christian. Please respect my story. It defines me. Trying to silence me is to limit my ability to flourish as a fellow human. In return, I will respect your story as fundamental to your identity as we work together to give hope for the future to the students we teach.
Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.
So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. MPs want the DfE to pioneer mindfulness training in three schools, before establishing a £1m fund to train teachers in its delivery in every classroom.
The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.
So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God. The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.
The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).
While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).
In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.