Thursday, May 03, 2007


Earlier this month, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) decided to have a meeting on faith schools at its annual conference - following up on their constructively critical position paper (pictured below). I spoke at it, on behalf of Ekklesia. So did Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association. The organiser tried hard to get speakers (especially an Anglican and a Catholic) who would put the view for advocates of religiously-affiliated schools.

When the Church Times reported this on 30 March 2007, they said there was "an 11th-hour invitation had been sent to the C of E and the RC Church to attend the ATL debate". That's funny, because I know from my own correspondence that the organiser was making approaches two weeks beforehand - and that the union got some, shall we say, "sniffy" responses in some quarters.

It has also been suggested to me that "the timing was wrong for the churches, because of the run-in to Holy Week". This is an interesting argument. First, having worked both for the C of E and ecumenical bodies, I know that, although it can be a busy period, people are available. If clergy can't be, there are many lay people with plenty of professional experience in the area.

Second, the complaint once again illustrates "the Christendom mindset". When the church and its message was fully ingrained in the culture and its institutions, it could be taken for granted that other people would know and fit in with the Church Calendar. But that is no longer the case. Indeed a couple of people who I chatted to after the ATL meeting had little or no idea what Holy Week was.

If Christians wish to engage with others, they can no longer assume that it will always be on terms which are convenient to them. The onus is on them to go out of the way (in a manner that Jesus described the priestly class as struggling to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan). And insofar as this represents a shift away from ecclesiastical presumption, it is a healthy spiritual state of affairs for the church, I'd say.

The ATL argues that publicly-funded educational institutions should be accountable and open to all, which is not the case when faith schools are almost wholly financed by the taxpayer but can turn down pupils and teachers because they have the wrong beliefs . On Ekklesia we go further. We think that privileging the interests of church-going parents and children over others goes against the Gospel message of favour-free love, and we think that a "Christian school" would be one that favoured those excluded or at the margins of society, not people who have the time, money or possibility of jumping church admission hoops.

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic hierarchies see things very differently. So there is a debate to be had, and it shouldn't just be conducted in the corridors of power or at the Athenaeum Club (where Jonathan Bartley and I were invited for one conversation some months ago). The defensive shields need to come down and the talking needs to get more positive on the part of those who run religiously-affiliated schools.

That's why I welcome the ATL's position. Not just because I agree with their concerns, but because they are trying to address them constructively. They also have a lot of Christians on their side, even if they are not official church spokespeople.

See also: Teaching union defends its calling of faith schools to account and Time to end discrimination by faith schools, says teaching union. ATL's position statement on faith schools can be accessed here.

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