Anglican Schools: Christian schools for secular students

Reimagine Mission

I love bread and butter. Especially if the bread is still warm and the butter is real. For some people bread and butter is what sustains them in the absence of other food. But would you go to a restaurant that just served bread and butter? There is a whole world of food that is far more inspiring if less accessible than bread and butter.

For fifty years, maybe longer, Anglican Schools have approached mission with a particular set of actions or activities, namely: chapel, chaplain, religious education and service. These four things have been the bread and butter of Anglican School mission.

In that time the bread has changed a bit, different toppings have been introduced to add flavour. In some places more exotic delicacies have been tried but the time has come to move beyond bread and butter. The time for merely tweaking toppings is past. Making really good bread and amazing butter just isn’t enough. We need to reimagine the cuisine we are offering to young people in our schools and to explore the reasons we offer what we do.

In fact I think the kind of change we need to make is so significant that it is akin to a restaurant deciding to switch from a la carte Italian to Indian buffet or tapas.

My own framing of this reimaging is that Anglican Schools need to intentionally become:

Christian schools for secular students.

Let me unpack this a bit.

It is fairly well accepted that in most Anglican Schools the vast majority of students are not actively engaged with the Anglican Church beyond the school. It is possible their parents put down Anglican at enrolment or on the census but to use shorthand they are mostly secular in their worldview. I realise the situation is not quite as simple as this but the issue or concern I have is that we don’t shape our mission around the perception that students are in the school because they are committed or even interested in the Christian faith. In fact the Christian aspect of the school may possibly be the part they are most ambivalent about or even hostile towards.

The bread and butter of Anglican School mission was developed in a time when by and large our society was Christian in inclination. The main thrust of this mission was to catechize. This is no longer the world we live in. Society has changed and so have our students. We can no longer effectively be Christian schools for Christian students. For some time we have tried to be Christian schools for Christian and secular students. I don’t think this is an effective approach either.

Chapel is at the centre of my ambivalence around the way we do mission. If chapel is a worship service I wonder how we justify doing it when maybe 90% of the students would choose not to be there. If it is not a worship service but say evangelism why do we feel compelled to do it the way we do when there might be more effective strategies that are less coercive.

Anglican Schools not Christian enough

At times I hear Christian families complain that Anglican Schools are not Christian enough. Trying to pin down exactly what they mean is often difficult. I think the reality is that Anglican Schools struggle to be Christian Schools for secular and Christian students at the same time. And a large part of the issue is that the majority of students are not Christian. This has an impact on how we do our mission whether we notice it or not.

A student once told me that he was leaving his Anglican School. He said it wasn’t Christian enough. I asked him what he meant, in light of worship and RE and the many other things the school did to reflect their Christian ethos. He told me it was the other students. They weren’t Christian. Or at least there weren’t enough Christian students. His family was looking for a safe Christian school filled with Christian students. This isn’t what most Anglican Schools are. As a post script to this story the student never left. The intended Christian school turned out to be not academic enough, or so he told me.

So this is the question: what would mission in our schools look like if we decided that our major focus would be on the secular students. Would we still do the bread and butter things we currently do or might we do different things.

Does chapel, chaplain, RE and service really achieve what we want them to?

Imagine a Head saying to a Christian family: You are very welcome in our school but you need to know our Christian mission is really focused on the secular students who make up the majority of our school. This shapes all we do. If you want to be part of that mission we welcome you but if you are looking for an environment filled with Christian peers for your child that isn’t who we are.

The bigger question, then,  is what this might  look like. What might be the big brush strokes of this approach?

Across Australia we are in the midst of experiments and innovation to work this out.

One of the important parts of the picture relates to student perception of freedom and choice.

Increasing student perception of freedom and choice

Most chaplains and religious educators work hard to make chapel and religious education open, engaging and non-coercive. The problem they face however is that any religious activity students must participate in may be perceived as coercive because they are made to participate in it. It is the student’s perception that matters here. There are ways to counter this.

Prayer Spaces seem to counter this perception because students are given the choice about which activity they may engage in or to not engage at all. By engaging on their own terms they do their own inner work. They open up to the reality of their own spiritual life. Now some may say this doesn’t proclaim the Gospel. That may be true but it does start to create the space where students might be willing to listen and engage.

Increasing student perception of freedom and choice is primarily about using structures that provide the space for students to feel free to express the truth about themselves. I am not sure the general hymn sandwich structure of chapel/worship provides this.

The same freeing effect might occur in religious education classes when students have the same teacher for many years and they have learnt that the teacher is open to hearing their opinion and respecting it. This requires very intentional work that is not simply catechetical in style.

In essence we need to move from offering the bread and butter we have in the past to providing a buffet. A space where choice and freedom are honoured and where students perceive that to be true.

Do you think the way we fulfil our Christian mission needs to change? If so how?  What are the major barriers to reimagining and reshaping what we do?

Stephen Harrison Written by:

Stephen has a passion for exploring mission and ministry. He has worked for the Anglican Church for the last twenty years mostly in the area of youth and children’s ministry. In this time he has worked for two churches, two Anglican schools, as a university chaplain and for the Brisbane Diocese as the Youth, Children’s and Families Officer. Currently he is the Director of Mission for the Anglican Schools Commission. He has degrees in Science, Theology, Community Welfare, Education and has completed a Doctorate in Ministry, focused on the church’s mission in Anglican schools.

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