The assertion that an Anglican School is a Christian community is ubiquitous. This for me is problematic. Apart from the fact the idea is rarely unpacked, it has the capacity to shape ideas about what the school does in terms of the Christian faith and may lead to members of the school community being treated in a way not conducive to open engagement.
Certainly Anglican Schools are Christian institutions. I strongly affirm this. They are owned by or connected with the Church. In most cases they express the Christian faith in clear and confident ways, through chapel, Christian and religious education, chaplaincy and through a myriad of little things that contribute to creating a Christian ethos. But does this make them Christian communities?
In my mind the difference between a Christian institution and a Christian community lies in how we think about its membership. An institution is in essence its staff, the people who run it for the benefit of others. A community is made up of all its participants. As an institution the school is represented by its leaders, its teachers and other staff. As a community it is the whole of the school including students and possibly parents as well.
Both Christian institutions and Christian communities take their core values from the Christian faith, they seek to be shaped by the Gospel in the way they express themselves. They are both made up of people who are seeking to live their lives in response to the call they hear from God through the person of Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean all members are fully committed; some may just be seeking but they are responding to the same call, message, and beliefs. Primarily, and maybe idealistically, Jesus is the thing that ties them together.
“the difference between a Christian institution and a Christian community lies in how we think about its membership”
An institution can do all these things while serving those who do not profess the Christian faith or have any interest in it at all. Those who engage with the institution may do so for the particular service it provides. If someone is injured and they are sent to a Christian-owned and run hospital it may not matter to them that they are an atheist as long as they have confidence that the doctors, nurses and other staff do their job well. They may or may not perceive that being Christian shapes the way the staff do their work. Alternatively they may prefer a Christian hospital because in their mind they see that there is a set of values that they think might mean a higher level of care, whether this is true or not.
This scenario is similar in some ways to that of an Anglican Schools. Parents may send their children to an Anglican School despite the fact that they have a very residual or no connection with the church at all. Some may see that the school does a good job of being an educational facility and that it being Christian is irrelevant. Some may see a set of values that they think might mean a higher level or care for their child. They want the staff to do a good job and being a Christian organisation is a bonus. Some may wish some of these values to be passed to their children even if they don’t want their children to end up as church goers.
In both these cases the “customers” or “clients” can receive the benefit of the Christian institution regardless of their attitude to the Christian faith.
How is this different to a Christian community?
A community is made up of all its members and in particular they share something in common. They don’t share all things in common but some key things.
In an Anglican School the thing that primarily draws the community together is education not faith. It may be education shaped by the Christian faith but for many if not most students in the school, education is that thing connecting them to teachers and other members of the community. It is the critical component. If you take away the educational component the community does not exist anymore. If on the other hand you take away the faith aspect, the school remains an educational community. Probably a diminished one, but one still the same.
In my mind an Anglican School is not a Christian community when possibly only 1%-3% of students are actively engaged with a church community. It is not such a community even if 25% identify as Anglican on the school role. Some may counter: ‘all of them are connected with the Church through the school’. Or even ‘the school is a church’. This for me gets to the heart of the issue of why this matters at all.
Calling a school a Christian community has the potential to distract us from some important thinking and consequent action. For instance, the possibility that the school is a mission field. When we think of the school as a church community or Christian community it is easy to act within it like we might act with a church and do the things a gathered church community might do. I think this is a mistake. We need to know our “audience” and communicate and engage with them in ways that are appropriate.
On top of this, publicly saying a school is a Christian community means we are co-opting people, students and staff into our world-view without their permission. Sure, they knew they were sending their child to a Christian school and probably expect Christian stuff to happen. This doesn’t mean they wish to be automatically identified as a Christian.
Having been given some degree of permission to engage young people with the Christian faith we should be communicating with them in ways that are conducive to them hearing and responding. This may mean not just changing our words but structures as well. By sending students the message that this is a Christian community we may limit their feeling of freedom to engage in real dialogue.
Saying to a school community “we are a Christian community” may send a whole lot of mixed messages. It might spark off thoughts like: What do you mean by that? I am not a Christian, am I part of this?
There are other ways of saying what might be intended: This school is shaped by the Christian faith. This school is connected with Christianity. This school calls people to hear the Gospel.
“Calling a school a Christian community has the potential to distract us”
I have a hunch that the reason the church and those in schools want to call a school a Christian community has to do with the pressure real or perceived from the wider church to fill pews. One way of countering this is to claim they are already on pews, by attending the school. The problem is that this doesn’t deal with the reality of hearts and minds.
Possibly it is also a way of saying the role of the chaplain is as important as the local minister. If this is the case I would want to say: This is probably the most important role in the church anywhere in the country. Chaplains and others involved in school ministry are on the very bleeding edge of mission and should be supported fully. They have an opportunity that few churches have, that of engaging with a secular young audience every day of the week. It is a difficult task and being within a school setting with its mixed purposes makes it harder.
Asserting that the school is a Christian community however doesn’t make it easier. So what else is there? Some chaplains are nurturing smaller voluntary Christian communities in their schools. These are made up of people who identify as Christian or who are keen to learn and grow. Some of these communities form the core of the Christian ministry team within the school. Some are also strongly connected with their local church community. These groups have the potential to act missionally by living, working and serving in a way that proclaims the good news of the kingdom. These little communities act as the church in the community of the school. This development needs to be encouraged and chaplains given the time to work in this way where they desire to do so.
An Anglican School as a whole may not be a Christian community but the Christian communities within them have an amazing opportunity for engagement before them.