Faith Formation and Culture in Anglican Schools
I thank Stephen Harrison for his thoughtful and challenging article on the lack of faith formation in Anglican schools. Stephen names what is politely ignored in most Anglican educational circles – namely that there is little evidence that Anglican schools actually encourage young people to become Anglican Christians or indeed Christians of any sort. As he so drily and pertinently comments, ‘No one wants to hear this.’
This response seeks to go one step further in pointing out some other things that ‘no one wants to hear’, in order to start to answer the central question as to why Anglican schools do not produce members of Anglican churches.
Embedded in Stephen’s article is an unexamined assumption. It becomes clear in this sentence: Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Christian culture of a school has any significant impact on young people’s faith formation.
I think that why no one wants to hear that Anglican schools do not make Christian disciples is because of a prior problem: no one wants to hear that actually the typical Anglican school does not have a Christian culture at all. Certainly there are Christians present in Anglican schools; there is usually a chaplain, there are normally some teachers of Religious Education with a committed Christian faith, and in the best case scenario there is a principal who has an informed personal Christian faith. However, typically, the majority of teachers are not Christians, as is implied in several articles on this blog which explore issues of educating staff; teachers’ life philosophies are typically shaped by the secular media and secular ideologies in tertiary institutions. But, of course, there are additional factors: the majority of families are uninterested in the specifically religious dimension of the school and likewise are shaped by secular priorities; and normally the members of schools boards are selected for business acumen or alumni ties not for understanding the Christian faith and how it interacts with education, resulting in priorities of marketing and of school customs being reflected in board policies and budgets.
Why is the Christian culture weak in Anglican Schools?
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the heritage of Anglican schools as representatives of a social tradition by which Anglicanism was identified with the state. This identity means that specifically Christian and doctrinal content has been diluted as society has become increasingly secularised. The paradox of Anglican dual identity is more fully discussed in my book Challenge and Choice (available through emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
I do not think, personally, that a mission can be carried forward by those who do not even understand what the mission is, let alone who lack any commitment to drive it forward. If the overwhelming majority of those running the school and influencing the students have neither understanding nor commitment to forwarding Christianity, then the school culture will not be Christian and it will not achieve any Christian transformation.
So the first matter to address in meeting Stephen’s challenge is that of actually expressing a genuinely Christian culture. While community is a much valued quality of Anglican schools, in itself it is not uniquely Christian. Ethnic and tribal groups, geographical neighbourhood groups, religious groups such as Buddhist monks or Sunni or Shi’ite Islamists, employment teams and sporting clubs all can, and frequently do, display strong and supportive communities.
How is a Christian culture developed in a school?
Real Christian community is centred on Christ in Word and Sacrament and the good works which flow out of that shared commitment and which are empowered by the Holy Spirit. A Christian school community is not a community based on having similar family values, historic school allegiances, shared academic goals, house competitions, humanist fund-raising endeavours and cheering on the school sports teams.
A genuine whole-school Christian community can never be formed when the majority of students and families are not Christian. As Stephen rightly points out, inclusivism and diversity are defining and valuable characteristics of Anglican schools. They are what makes it possible for them to connect to the non-Christian world and to serve it with high educational and pastoral standards which derive from a Christian view of knowledge and of the value of individuals.
Therefore, Christian culture in schools has to be carried through a large enough and influential enough sub-culture comprised of governors, staff (including non-teaching staff), principal and student leaders, who have Christian faith and corporately model Christian behaviour and articulate Christian beliefs.
If there is such a genuinely Christian sub-group, students and their families will indeed come to faith, just as Christian medical and educational missionaries drew people to their Master by word and action in many a majority world country in the nineteenth and twentieth century. However, not all will become Christians. As Stephen points out in his analogy, even under optimal conditions, pandas have problems reproducing. The same is true for producing Christians. The reason is clearly stated by Jesus: Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13, 14) Behind this lies an often neglected Christian doctrine, namely that people are sinful, biased towards self-sufficient independence instead of submission to God. (Jeremiah 17:9)
Yet whether students choose Christ or not, it is the Christian obligation of an Anglican school to treat them with love, care, dignity, respect and justice and to educate them well with truthful, thought-provoking experiences in all curricular and extra-curricular activities. That is because, regardless of their faith position, each is made in the image of God and each is loved deeply by Christ. As Jesus says, Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6:27)
What are the starting points for faith formation?
I agree with Stephen’s tentative suggestion that a culture of inquiry and exploration is a facilitator of faith formation. I suggest that we start with the real issues and questions that preoccupy children and young adults, rather than framing our explorations through the theological emphases of the past or the preoccupations of teachers. Some starting points might be authentic relationships, the physical world and its spiritual dimension as exemplified in climate ideologies, what makes life worth living and related issues such as depression, image and self-image. You will know what matters to your students when you listen to them and give them enough time to express the deep matters in their minds.
Students and teachers in chapel, Religious Education and all other lessons, should be in the habit of exploring together meaningful questions through the lens of searching towards truth. There is probably no definitive ‘Christian answer’ to most issues, and this is what is recognised in the Anglican tradition of open intellectual inquiry. But there definitely are statements, arguments, heroes and anti-heroes in the Bible that have application to the issues that are important for students.
Anglican schools which want to make an impact for faith will encourage serious examination and critical application of these. However, such exploration is premised on having informed leaders and teachers with deep knowledge of the Bible and Christian thought, and ability to listen at the same time to the world of young people, and to use Christian beliefs to critique current ideologies rather than capitulating to them.
Sadly this knowledge base is seriously lacking among Christians today. Too many RE teachers, chaplains and other representatives of the Christian faith rely on over-simplified second-hand popularist theologies instead of putting ‘heart, mind, soul and strength’ into knowing what God himself says and loving him. Some rarely refer to the Bible narratives nor ever unpack the significance of the great statements in the creeds which are shared by all Christians. As one older clergyman quipped years ago, ‘Sermonettes make Christianettes’. Or what is worse, purportedly religious teaching with superficial Christian content has no power to engage minds or change hearts and it is unsurprising that it does not produce faith. Christians in schools need confidence in Christ so that they push aside spiritual clutter and dialogue clearly, respectfully and deeply about foundational Christian truth claims.
What happens beyond the school?
Finally it should be mentioned that pseudo-Christian culture in schools is not the only problem. Even if young people become Christians through their Anglican school, many of them will never become Anglican parishioners because Anglican church culture lets them down. Far too many Anglican clergy are preoccupied with maintaining their liturgical traditions or conventional practices and have no idea how to welcome young people. Likewise, far too many members of Anglican congregations are intent on preserving their comfortable club, and are unwilling to accept changes to their routines or services or to put themselves out to do anything creative which might actually connect with the life patterns of younger people.
According to Christ, if we sow the authentic Christian truth of the gospel, although some seeds land among thistles or on the hard path, some also do land in good soil and grow to produce faith. But does authentic Christianity actually infuse the culture of Anglican schools?
Ruth Edwards is the author of ‘Challenge and Choice: Australian Anglican schools today’ which is the definitive exploration of the typical culture of Anglican schools in Australia, based on doctoral research. She has wide experience teaching across subject disciplines in all school sectors, and has run a Religious Education Department in an Anglican school. She has also worked as an educational researcher and school marketer. Her current interest is in writing and in encouraging Anglican schools to be genuinely educational and genuinely Christian through being authentically Anglican.