School culture kills faith formation, or why pandas don’t breed in captivity

Pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity. Have you ever thought about why this is so? You might speculate that it is the environment of the zoo that somehow puts them off. But as it turns out, it is a considerably more complicated affair. While the environment might need to be optimal, pandas face a raft of problems when it comes to the game of love. These include a tiny window of opportunity for pregnancy each year, male pandas often being clueless and a lack of chemistry between panda partners. The reality is that even in the wild pandas aren’t brilliant at making babies.

What does this have to do with Anglican school ethos? Stick with me for a minute…it’s a metaphor.

Young people are equally notorious for being difficult to bring to faith in Anglican Schools (or is it that Anglican Schools are notorious for not bringing young people to faith?). We have all heard the comments about church schools inoculating young people against faith. Have you ever spent any time thinking about why this is so?

Are Anglican schools in the faith business?

Now some may say it isn’t the business of Anglican schools to help young people find faith in Jesus. I find this somewhat disingenuous. I understand that there are sensitivities around trying to “convert” students in the school. But if we aren’t hoping that young people will encounter Jesus, understand what he teaches and follow his way, what are we doing? And why have chapel and religious education classes?

My favourite quote from The Way Ahead (2001) report into Church of England Schools says: “Church schools are places where a particular vision of humanity is offered.” This might sounds wishy washy but it means that the vision of humanity we put forward in schools is that found in Jesus Christ in the Gospels. James KA Smith says “every pedagogy assumes and expresses an anthropology”(1). In other words, how we do education reveals our conception of the human person. If we think people are “brains on sticks” our pedagogy will reflect this by over-emphasising the academic at the expense of the social, emotional, physical and spiritual. For Christian schools holding Jesus up as the ultimate model for human existence needs to be core to what the school does.

Which brings us back to pandas and young people.

While we could excuse ourselves by saying that few young people come to faith “in the wild” let alone in the “captivity” of the school, I don’t think this lets us off the hook. Like the animal experts who are desperately trying to find the key to panda pregnancy we need to have similar desperation in finding out what we can do to make schools more conducive for young people to find faith.

What role does school culture play in faith formation?

Which brings us to the question: What role does school culture play in this?

Across the Anglican school system ethos or culture is widely considered an important element in faith formation. The idea that young people might experience the school as a vibrant Christian community is a powerful idea. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Christian culture of a school has any significant impact on young people’s faith formation (2).

No one wants to hear this. But in hearing it we should be motivated to ask: what can we do?

I do think school culture is important. If we get it wrong it may hamper everything else we attempt. But I wonder at times if in trying to create a Christian or Anglican culture in the school we are actually moving in the wrong direction: a bit like trying to be happy by focussing on happiness.

What if a school culture that supports faith formation doesn’t focus on elements that are necessarily Christian but on those that create an atmosphere for exploration? What if our Anglican school culture actually discourages faith formation or kills it? What if the greatest need is a culture focussing on open enquiry, or silence, or dialogue? Or what if it is none of these? Realistically, at the moment, we don’t really know.

Broadly speaking Anglican Ethos encourages:

  • Inclusivism and diversity: welcoming whoever wants to come to our schools.
  • Dialogue: engaging in discussion about faith with others of different beliefs and none.
  • Multidimensionality: in that the educative standards of the school are as important as the Christian ones.
  • Exploration over catechetical instruction.

These things are in our DNA and they shape what our schools are like. We are not likely to remove them (nor should we) but maybe we need to fire up our missional imagination and ask: What does a school culture look like that that is necessary for young people to move towards faith? Maybe our students can help us to understand what they need in school culture to be free to consider faith. Whatever the case we really need to examine the issue of school culture and work out what is going on and what really matters.

What is missing from our schools?

This is only the first step however in what we need to do to be faithful to our mission and effective in it. The next step is working out what the missing elements of faith formation are. In the wild male pandas need some role models in order to learn the art of love. This is missing in captivity and so they struggle to comprehend their role in the whole process.

In the school we need to think about what elements might be missing from our missional strategy. This may require significant research, experimentation and innovation. It might mean going back to some traditional things. It might mean totally changing the shape of what we do in the school. What if chapel and religious education were discovered to be the biggest hindrance? Would we remain committed to them? What if having Christian teachers makes all the difference?

At the moment, we may only have hints concerning the activities and experiences powerful and necessary in helping young people find faith in Jesus. But if we are to celebrate young people coming to faith in our schools in the same way that the birth of a panda in captivity is celebrated we need to be willing to step back, ask hard questions, try new things, take big risks and have a deep sense of the importance of the task.

After all, why should panda breeders have all the joy?


  1. Smith, J. K. A. (2009). Desiring the kingdom : Worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Academic.
  2. Green, E. (2009). Mapping the field. A review of the current research evidence on the impact of schools with a Christian ethos. London, Theos.
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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