The Mission of God and the mission of the school Part 1

The mission of an Anglican school is to be both genuinely educational and genuinely Christian. It should present Christianity as a relevant and meaningful way of life, (a phrase from the Radford College mission statement).

(This is Ruth Edward’s presentation at the Chaplains Pre-Conference at the Anglican Schools Australia Conference 2015)

To show this I want to deal extremely briefly with three areas:

  • firstly the real context and culture of typical Anglican schools;
  • secondly what the church gives to its schools;
  • thirdly ways of applying that Anglican heritage proactively while respecting the context in which schools operate.

Organizational Culture and Context in Anglican schools

Despite all the rhetoric at ASA Conferences, Anglican schools are essentially secular places. If you are a chaplain, you know that. There is always that feeling of being on the margins, balancing what you’d like to say and what is political to say, of having to justify your stance, definitely to students, sometimes to parents and even to colleagues and heads on occasions.

Anglican schools are secular for two main reasons:

  • Firstly education fulfils a social role and operates in a marketplace environment. In secular Australian society that means it is framed by non-religious priorities and assumptions.
  • The second reason Anglican schools feel secular is that most of the people in them are non-religious. They are generally people of good will but they know little about Christianity.

Anglican schools are businesses run to meet the needs of the families who enrol their kids – in business terms they exist to serve their paying clients. I use the word deliberately although teachers don’t like it, because it represents accurately the obligations which schools have to students’ families. They also have obligations as social institutions to meet government requirements.

So we cannot operate as if the clients who enrol their students do so because of the religious dimension. A few may; most do not. Of course, many express appreciation for the values and discipline that independent Anglican schools promote. But few link this with the metaphysical basis of Christianity, i.e. values are not understood as the necessary outworking of doctrine. And that is probably because we, that is school leaders including many chaplains, have not told them.

If these essentially secular schools are to fulfil their Christian mission:

  • firstly we need to make the connection explicit between the values our clients want and the reasons Christianity gives for practising the core virtues of love, truthfulness, justice and faithfulness, and related qualities like kindness, care, generosity and forgiveness. We need to very clearly talk about Jesus who is the reason and exemplar of all these.
  • secondly we need to intentionally demonstrate Christianity-in-action not only in chapel services and RE lessons, but also in collegial interactions, management practices and decision-making. That is, Anglican schools must stop reflecting society’s norms and instead they must take a missional approach which informs, instructs and inspires people about core Christian beliefs.
  • thirdly we need to educate our staff as well as our students about Christianity. What should we tell them? The basic doctrines of the historic creeds are a very good place to start. We need to tell them that Christianity is about Jesus Christ, who is alive and acting right now. Tell your school community this! Don’t assume they’ll work it out for themselves. Most teachers I spoke with had little idea of this.
  • worship has to respond to its missional context. It has to communicate. It has to communicate to people who don’t believe Christianity, who don’t know much about it and who aren’t interested in sitting still and being nice just because the head or the chaplain says so. Worship has to demonstrate eternal reality in this time-specific 21st century moment. It has to be both modern and ageless.

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What Anglicanism gives to its schools

My second point is about what Anglicanism gives to its schools.

As talk about chapel suggests, Anglican schools are not purely secular. My research showed that they have a Christian identity, which is often submerged under their secular priorities but which is significant in influencing cultural norms. In other words, there is something underneath that can emerge and have the light shone upon it. Tension between this Christian identity and the social one is at the heart of what distinguishes Anglican school culture.

The Anglican church has given much to its schools and identification with the church continues to add value to their reputation.

  • First: in the general community the Anglican church stands for balance, respectability, social integration. The brand “Anglican” signifies to parents that a school is solid, mainstream, part of a long tradition and has accountability to something beyond itself.
  • Second: Because it is a well-established institution in society the Anglican church has been able to underwrite developing schools.
  • Third: The Anglican church provides important resources through its people who serve on school boards, who offer financial insights, and who serve as heads, chaplains, counsellors and teachers. Many have themselves been educated in Anglican schools and bring to their current service, experience and attitudes which enrich the schools today.
  • Fourth: Oversight by the Anglican church can hold schools to their central values, provide a perspective by which financial and pedagogical policies are evaluated and be an anchor holding schools to widely-endorsed corporate priorities.
  • Fifth: Anglicanism has distinctively marked its schools’ cultures. While Christianity has given to all Christian-connected schools the personal virtues I enumerated previously, it is Anglicanism which has embedded in them four core attributes which make them educationally desirable. I found that Anglican schools typically show four cultural attributes:
    • Anglicanism has given its schools an attitude of being open and welcoming to people of all religious and philosophical persuasions and a belief in dialoguing with them and respecting difference – i.e. in one word, they are inclusive.
    • Anglicanism has given its schools a readiness to engage and to contribute to the public sphere in all areas of knowledge and endeavour. Anglicans express the eternal through the temporal. In one word, they are incarnational.
    • Anglicanism has given its schools an emphasis on reasoned, balanced, broad thinking – in one word, they are intellectual. This is the central skill of education, so no wonder people in general find Anglican schools positive places for education.
    • Anglicanism has given its schools the values of order, consistency, predictability associated with the liturgical heritage of the Anglican church.

These are qualities clients perceive and desire in our schools. These qualities distinguish them from most schools of other denominations, although of course there are cross-sectoral influences. For instance, when I was at Canberra Girls Grammar some Roman Catholic parents at a parent-teacher night told me their daughter was there, not at the RC school, because they valued the freedom of thought Anglicanism offered.

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Applying the Anglican heritage proactively

In this final section I want to apply the Anglican heritage pro-actively to secular culture.

The qualities schools gain from their Christian Anglican heritage can be deliberately embraced to address the religious deficit produced in a secular world.

I would like our schools to be both genuinely Christian and genuinely educational because they are authentically Anglican.

That means we deliberately utilise these Anglican qualities to enhance the educational offering and to articulate an explicit Christian perspective.

  • Why don’t we say that we value each individual and respect their viewpoints because we follow a God who made and loves every individual, indeed so much so that He died for them, and moreover, He is alive to help us live for others?
  • Why don’t we say that we work towards the highest academic standards because as Anglicans we respect reason and because we give particular emphasis to Christ’s injunction to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?
  • Why don’t we say that it is our Anglican heritage which enables us to have both continuity and positive conservatism and also encourages engagement with the contemporary world and its issues?

In our schools we are inclusive, we do treat diverse people equitably, we do value non- Christian people, we even make them prefects and give them high marks in essays for well-argued non-Christian positions. We really do encourage altruism and service and our teachers give above and beyond any duty statement. We do produce young men and women who engage with society and contribute to public life.

However they will only emerge from our schools as Christians when we explicitly link these significant civil and personal virtues to the person who founded the faith. i.e. we must be confident to speak of Christ. That is the mission of the church and of every agency associated with it.

If we speak this out clearly, consistently and lovingly in our low-keyed Anglican way, modelling it in our dealings with colleagues and students alike, embedding Christianity in management as much as in pastoral care classes, we will be using an authentic Anglican identity to deliver excellent education which will please our clients but we will also demonstrate genuine Christianity and please our God.

Although this was not a book review, I have written a book (Challenge and Choice: Australian Anglican schools today) which describes the typical culture of Anglican school and the practical challenges which that presents. A diversity of readers, chaplains and heads from different parts of Australia have fed back to me that the book resonates with their experience.

What I say today is based on that research with some implications for action. The book, of course, develops more fully how to live out authentic Anglicanism in schools. The book is available from Barton Books (www.bartonbooks.com.au).

Discussion Questions

  1. What barriers do you observe in your school to it having an effective Christian mission? What is one thing you could do personally in your role to break down one of those barriers?
  2. Do we really want our schools to have Christian mission as a central defining quality? Why (not)?
  3. Do you agree that Anglican Christianity promotes good education? Do you agree that this should be articulated explicitly? Why (not)?
  4. Consider what actions by each of the following would contribute to improve teachers’ understanding of and sympathy with Christianity: colleagues, local parishes, chaplains, head and executive staff
  5. Of the four indicators of Anglican ethos – inclusive, incarnational, intellectual and liturgical – which is most evident to you in your context?

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