Panickers, deniers and the (educational) future of the Church

Arriving at Northbrook School in Lewisham (later renamed Trinity) as a new Head in 2008, it was immediately apparent that my first task was to demonstrate the need for change. Colleagues from that time will remember our using the management book Our Iceberg is Melting. They will also remember my constant references to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless, our lives had become unmanageable”. Rowan Williams once wrote of the definition of leadership that it is: “identifying the change that is needed, and making it happen.”

In a recent article in the Spectator, Ysenda Maxton-Graham wrote about Church Growth (here). Apparently quoting Bishop Humphrey Southern, the charming and urbane, Principal at Cuddesdon Theological College, she divides the Church of England into deniers and panickers. I am, clearly, in the latter category. Although, as she states, I would rather think of myself as a realist. I am in the fortunate position of visiting churches across the country and in many dioceses. I have no doubt of the seriousness of our situation, not for the continuity of Christianity, but for the sustainability of our institutions and structures, these need to change. We will only find out how they need to change by accepting the reality of our situation. Into the cover of my Bible case I have tucked a quotation from the French spiritual writer Jean-Nicholas Grou:

“Self cannot kill itself; the blow must be struck from elsewhere, and the self must rest passive in receiving it.

As long as I act I live .. I shall not succeed in dying spiritually by my own efforts. God must do this for me. He must act within me, and the fire of his love must consume the victim.”

Despite the obvious danger of Quietism, the lesson is clear. The church cannot decide to die, God will lead as the new structures and systems emerge.

Two essays published this week provide powerful material for thinking about this. The first is by David Goodhew of Cranmer Hall, Durham “A Theology for Anglican Church Growth“. It is essential reading. I will just summarise the structure of the essay which places a theology of growth within four areas:

  • Biblical
  • Doctrinal
  • Traditional
  • Reasonable

Especially powerful is locating the beginning of growth, through a quotation from Graham Tomlin, in the Trinity itself. The ‘procession’ of the Son from the Father, is an outgoing, an extroversion which the church is called to imitate and live. He is also clear that a failure of growth is a failure to call on the Holy Spirit. This is something I have argued in an Anglo-Catholic context (see here). The failure of Anglo-Catholicism (so far) to absorb charismatic renewal, that great gift of the Spirit which has re-energised so many parts of the church.

I like, too, his comments on St Cuthbert and St Francis. we so often over-spiritualise or over-individualise these saints. They are adored in a new-agey, ‘spiritual but not religious’ kind of way, but not remembered as the amazing evangelists that they were.

His argument for the reasonableness of a theology of growth hinges on the benefits of being a Christian. These arguments are compelling but not sufficient. I want my family, my friends, my colleagues to know Jesus because they will be happier and live longer by doing so. However, most of all – and I hardly dare say it, we are so alienated from our own theology – I want them to be saved. Jesus bring salvation, not just now in greater justice in the world, but for whatever eternal life will be. A conversation with a priest-colleague this week focussed on the danger that universalism poses the church’s mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved the compulsion to evangelise dissolves.

The second essay is by an assistant bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Robert Barron. (Here) “Evangelising the Nones“.

Again this is essential reading. Written, of course, from a Roman Catholic perspective, Barron is not altogether kind about the Reformation, but leaving that aside he has important things to say. His themes are:

  • The beautiful, the good the true
  • The dumbing down of popular theology
  • Christology
  • The nature of God
  • The Christian life

Reversing Kant, he takes Von Balthasar’s scheme of the beautiful leading to the good, leading to the true. In our profoundly experiential world he says, the only way to evangelise. He quotes Brideshead and Claudel’s “visceral experience of the beautiful”. This is the beautiful as objective not subjective reality. The Catholic tradition has an attic full of treasures to deliver this.

He is convinced that we need to teach a better christology that is firmly based on the Old Testament and which shows, therefore, how Jesus fits into the continuity of human history. Adam as the first priest and king and the garden of Eden as the “primordial Temple” that makes sense of Jesus and our need for salvation.

The way in which we describe or think of God also undermines our theology of mission. If God is a being like any other, we are in competition with God, and he quotes Christopher Hitchens: accepting a God like this would be accepting “permanent citizenship in a cosmic North Korea”. With Aquinas, Barron asserts a God whose existence is utterly unlike anything else that exists.

Finally, Barron addresses the need for the beautiful to lead to the good. Our failure as Christians to be good, the abuse crises in all the churches is the most obvious example, undo all our efforts to evangelise.

“We must recover Christian practices—study, fasting, contemplative prayer, the corporal works of mercy—in their intense forms, both as an expression of resistance and as an evangelical witness.”

Amen to that.

But I want to draw attention to a relatively minor point he makes:

“Some years ago, the late Francis Cardinal George showed me his fourth-grade religion book from the 1940s. My jaw dropped at the complexity, intellectual rigor, and technical vocabulary on offer, especially in comparison to the texts that my generation had read for religious instruction.”

This is where my worlds (Education and the Church) meet. It is why the revolution in education to a knowledge based curriculum is so important to the church. In teaching the faith, churches have adopted the failed discovery methods and progressive forms of education which are passing. Future generations will look on these as the wilderness decades for education – and for the church’s communication of the faith.

The most theological conversation I have had with an educator in the last two years was with the non-Christian Headteacher of Michaela Community School in Brent (see my blogs on the school herehere and here), Katherine Birbalsingh. Katherine recognises the realty of what we would call ‘original sin’, she knows that memory is the only building block of learning and she refuses to allow anything in a child’s background to be an excuse for failure: I would call this sin and redemption.

The beautiful leads to the good, and that leads to the true: truth is knowledge. ‘Knowledge is power’ it says outside Michaela. Knowledge is freedom I would say. “An expression of resistance” is how Barron describes the great spiritual practices of the Christian tradition.

In one of my favourite quotations, Albert Camus writes:

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

The Gospel is the most profound form of freedom possible. Barron succinctly demonstrates why that is. To evangelise we need to be able to show people that Jesus’ yoke is light indeed (Mt 11:30). To end with Barron’s final paragraph:

“In its most elemental form, Christianity is not a set of ideas, but rather a friendship with the Son of God, a friendship so powerful and transforming that Christians up and down the ages could say, with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” When it is radically internalized in this Pauline way, the friendship with Jesus fills the mind, fires the heart, awakens the will, and changes the body. And then it sends us on mission.”

This post first appeared on Quodcumque Janaury 6th 2018 as “God made it grow: panickers, deniers and the future of the Church”

Fr Richard Peers is Director of Education for the Diocese of Liverpool in England.



Richard Peers Written by:

Fr Richard Peers is the Director of Education for the Diocese of Liverpool.

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