3rd Sunday before Lent / Education Sunday

Sermon: Sunday 16 February 2014

3rd Sunday before Lent / Education Sunday

The Venerable David Newman, Archdeacon of Loughborough

Deuteronomy 30:15-20   1 Corinthians 3:1-9   Matthew 5:21-37

As Chair of the Diocesan Board of Education, I am glad to be able to join you on this Education Sunday, particularly because we are at a critical time in education, nationally and locally.  The educational landscape is changing at pace – dubbed the ‘Gove Rush’ at a meeting I was at last week – and here in the Diocese we are at a critical moment of change of Director of Education – entries closed on Friday and we are interviewing in two weeks.

In the four years I have chaired the Board, I have become increasingly convinced of the potential of schools – particularly our 97 church schools – to be at the heart of our mission.  Nationally I million children attend a Church of England school everyday, seven times more than are involved in weekly based church activities.  While I do not see our schools as simply an opportunity for state funded evangelism, there is huge potential for awakening children and young people to the important issues of faith.

The business writer Charles Handy once wrote this about his time at school:

‘Whoever it was who said that your schooldays were the happiest days of your life must have been either a masochist or had a very bad memory,’ I reflected as I left my last school on my last day.  I hoped fervently that it wasn’t true, otherwise I was going to have a very sad life.

I left persuaded that the world thus far was unfair, punitive and unpleasant.  The best way to survive was to find out what the rules were, to keep your head down and pass the tests that the authorities set you as best you could.  It was not the best way to prepare for the independent life, but that was the last thing I was thinking of.  I was going to another institution, a university, which would, I trusted, provide me with the credentials for further institutions where I would endeavour to keep the rules and pass their tests until death or retirement overtook me.

‘Keeping the rules and passing the tests’ is hardly an inspiring prospect for life, not just schooldays.  Yet increasingly education has had this rather functional feel to it – jumping through the hoops of prescribed tests to turnout productive citizens at the end.  Bishop John Pritchard, chair of the National Society has put it like this:

I think the danger we face is that education is becoming increasingly instrumentalist.  The desired outcome is for young people who are fit to contribute to the country’s wealth.  This requires an exam culture where students move along an educational assembly line from lesson to lesson and exam to exam until released into the economy as a unit of wealth production.  This is to put it over-dramatically perhaps, but the signs are there, and they are not the product of only one brand of government.  John Major was offended when Tony Blair listed as his three top priorities ‘education, education, education.  ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘they were my three priorities too, but not necessarily in the same order.’

The challenge for the church is to offer a different vision of education, no less committed to excellence, but with a distinctiveness that reflects our values and world-view.  There’s so much that could be said here, but I want to draw out one theme from each of the three readings set for today.

Deuteronomy is a book which is very clear about choice and the consequences that flow from it.  In today’s reading, Moses is very clear that the Israelites face two very contrasting futures: ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity’.  Those futures are dependent on choices about who they serve, where their ultimate allegiances lie: are they going to love the Lord their God and walk in his ways, or are they going to be drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them?  This matters, he says, for the one way will mean that ‘by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess’, while the other way will rob them of real life and ‘you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess’.  If that analysis is true – then where in the curriculum are we helping children think through these big questions of who they really serve and what are the forces shaping their lives?  David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, says:

The questions RE deals with are not just about…becoming more religiously literate – though that should not be underestimated; the questions also concern what our culture and society are about. And they go to the heart of everyone’s life; what do I live for? Is there a meaning to my life? What are my core commitments? What might be worth dying for? What makes sense of reality? What about good and evil? Who can be trusted on such matters? With whom do I identify most closely? What are my priorities in personal, family, social and political life?

At its best, RE draws teachers and pupils into the deepest wisdom about these things, into encountering ways of living and understanding that have been developed over thousands of years and are still being improvised upon in every country of the world in response to new challenges. Access to such wisdom for living is the biggest of all educational access questions.

Then he goes on to show how RE really informs all the other subjects in the curriculum. The fact that we marginalise RE maybe shows how much our society is unaware of who or what it is really serving and that we are an idolatrous culture.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he addresses disunity and factionalism in the church and how it affects his capacity to teach them – ‘I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready’.  Learning happens in the context of community where difference is welcomed and integrated.  Indeed that diversity enables a richer education.  Church schools have been criticised for creating exclusive communities but actually there is no evidence for that.  Analysis has shown that they are as diverse as any schools, and indeed some are situated within some of the poorest parts of the country, as was the vision for church schools in the first place.  Admissions policies that give a certain number of church places are seeking to ensure a core that will be committed to the ethos and so give that distinctive flavour to the community, but after that they are inclusive and diverse.

Then finally in the gospel, we have a glimpse of the master teacher at work in one of the most famous pieces of Christian teaching the Sermon on the Mount.  Over a whole series of issues, Jesus uses the refrain: ‘You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you…’  This wasn’t an undermining of the OT law or tradition.  He has already said that he hasn’t come to abolish that, but to fulfil it.  What he is doing is creatively applying it to a new situation and then living it out.  Teaching is not just about transmitting a curriculum or handing over a body of facts.  It’s creatively interpreting it to the life situations and needs of the learners; it is making it relevant and alive.  That’s why RE should never be dull, but be infected with the creativity of Jesus Christ.  That’s why teaching is a vocation and we need to discern and value and pray for those with that vocation.

In the Report Going for Growth, General Synod affirmed that ‘the church at national, diocesan and local level is called to work towards every child and young person having a life enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ’, and our schools are a key part of that aspiration.  As they raise questions of ultimate allegiance and value, as they build community, as they inspire teachers creatively to apply the Christian tradition, then implicitly and explicitly they will enable young people to encounter Jesus Christ.  Let’s pray for and support all those involved in the outworking of that vision.

© The Venerable David Newman