The start of a new school year is always an opportunity and a challenge. My first week has been full of new staff induction sessions, welcoming continuing staff back into a liturgical space, meeting new students, many of whom are wondering what this strange space called Anglican is, and reconnecting with continuing students who are probably wondering (at least when they see me) what chapels and services will be like this year.
For most of our staff and students, their last contact with the church will have been the Christmas services at the end of last year. For new staff and students this might be their first ever contact with a faith-based school and with Christianity, and Anglicanism. Some come from other faith backgrounds but most come with little to no experience of Anglican education. There is an important piece of work to do in creating sacred space within the school campus and timetable in which all of these various people can find welcome and belonging.
My mother always used to say to me to start the way I mean to go on. I think this work begins with confidence. As chaplains we need to be confident that the faith life of the school matters and is meaningful. Sometimes the school leadership or culture can make this incredibly challenging, but we need to own that confidence personally. We belong here. We are appointed by a bishop or archbishop to be here. People know this is an Anglican School so they won’t be surprised to find the school has a faith life. And if they are nervous about what that means, the last thing they need is for us to be nervous too.
However, if we are confident in our roles, we allow others to relax and to trust us. And that includes our school leadership. So know what you are doing and why, seek out opportunities to engage with leadership, and claim your space. Most people I encounter are secretly afraid of the God-stuff and are desperately hoping that I know what I am doing, because they sense that it matters, even if they don’t know why.
It is also vital that the space we create relates to the world in which our staff, students and families live and work. In the work of the ASA with the Rev Dr Daniel Heischmann, we concluded that one of the fundamental aspects of Anglicanism in schools is that it is Incarnational. To me, that means we relate to the world around us, and expect to find signs of the Spirit at work within it, even in unlikely places. The sacred space within an Anglican school is not a holy bubble insulated from popular culture, politics and economics, and the social pressures of life. On the contrary it engages with these things, and brings a theological lens to them, ready to find the holy in the mundane. If we are not watching what our people are watching, listening to what they are listening to, and naming the challenges they are experiencing, then we have no common language in which to speak.
The most engaging work I have done in my school, according to the feedback I receive, is the work that speaks the language of the people. Whether it is a reflection on a reality tv show, or a staffroom conversation about current affairs, I need to have a sense of what is occupying our staff and students. So I will watch that tv show, see that movie, listen to that music and follow the news. God speaks through all of these things, if only we are listening. People need our help in learning how to listen for themselves and how to find hope and life in what feels barren and hopeless.
As we begin another year, and frame the year ahead for our school communities I pray that all faith leaders in our schools will begin with confidence and develop that incarnational faith, so that our Anglican Schools will be places where all can encounter the God who is among us. May it be a pattern for how we go on through the year.