- 21st Jun 17
- 23rd Jun 17
The Fourth National School Chaplaincy Conference - Liverpool – ‘Growing the Kingdom of God’
For those who were unable to attend here is a summary of this Conference.
It was interspersed with worship liturgies of various kinds, brought together superbly by the Conference Liturgist Revd Wealands Bell and enacted in the large, circular chapel at the heart of the Liverpool Hope campus. It also incorporated a very diverse set of seminars and we hope to place some of the material that arose from them, as well as more general Conference material on the SCALA website over coming weeks and months. A more extended account of the main transactions of the Conference should be available soon.
A Conference liturgy, led by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, the Catholic Archbishop of the Liverpool, opened proceedings. It contained a drama ‘The Flock’, movingly presented by students of St Edward’s College and an address by Archbishop Malcolm.
In his address he acknowledged the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, went on to question the assumption in housing, as in so many other aspects of our culture, that bigger was better and then talked about flocks of sheep, the local and the particular and how through ministering locally we could, through our care, nonetheless, glimpse aspects of the Kingdom of God. Through walking around our schools, we meet others and, in so doing, discern God in them. Chaplains are ‘growing’ those who will in turn enable others to meet Christ. He urged his listeners, like Meister Eckhart, to keep ‘Christ in the corner of your eye’.
The first keynote address of the Conference was given by Dr Paula Gooder, the Director of Learning and Development for the Diocese of Birmingham. Dr Gooder posed the question - just what is the Kingdom of God? Although Christ commanded his disciples to proclaim it he himself always referred to it by allusion. He stated that it was near, we should pray for it to come, it was good news, it can be entered, it belongs to those with the least and the most marginal in human society. For us, the concept is hard to tie down. Jesus didn’t define it more closely, Dr Gooder maintained, possibly because Christ thought we knew, or that it needed to be reflected upon – or both. In English, ‘Kingdom’ is used as a concrete noun – a specific place – but in Greek and Aramaic it is an abstract noun – the rule or influence of God. Dr Gooder then proceeded to analyse the phrase ‘The Kingdom of God’ in an extremely erudite but fascinating way.
In Old Testament writings, history centres on an original theocracy, the direct rule of God giving way to the prophets mediating God’s will. Later, kings ruled on behalf of God. In talk of the coming of the Kingdom of God, there was a political edge. It sounded as if God was taking back control!
Jesus’s description of the Kingdom was always oblique – ‘the Kingdom of God is like…’ – allusive and tantalising. A strand of modern economic thought (John Kay – ‘obliquity’) argues that successful enterprises are so because they come at their core activity obliquely.
Three examples were then explored by Dr Gooder. Firstly, ‘It is like a mustard seed’ (Matt. 13: 31-32). Pliny described mustard as a pernicious weed so that perhaps the analogy was meant to imply disruption. Secondly, Jesus alluded to yeast (Matt. 13: 33). Yeast is also used to describe evil, as in Mark 8:15 – ‘beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod…’. Perhaps the Kingdom was intended to be at least as, if not more, powerful than this. Thirdly, Jesus described the kingdom as like treasure hidden in a field – buried to preserve it, to justify the land in which it is buried and can continue to be preserved.
Dr Gooder also summarised other analogies for the Kingdom - a net, a householder, a landowner, ten bridesmaids – all derived from ordinary human experience. She contended that we can discover the kingdom by ‘obliquity’ - by not believing that we have ownership of it and so allowing it to break in on us. She also suggested that it would be uncomfortable, offer us the unexpected and challenge us. Above all, she suggested that we should trust that it would grow silently and inexorably but that we should try to notice it!
Dr Gooder emphasised that the kingdom does not fit easily into learning outcomes and objectives , defies our attempts to quantify and evaluate it, and will always be allusive, challenging and unsettling. It will grow and grow once it germinates as well as disrupt our plans and dreams. We must be careful about praying for it because it may just surprise us by its arrival. The kingdom, she added, isn’t always in the Church, just as the Church isn’t always in the kingdom. We may not always be happy with kingdom outcomes but it will discover us if we are prepared!
The next session was entitled ‘The View from the Bridge’ and gave Nigel Genders, the Chief Education Officer of the Church of England and Paul Barber, Director of the Catholic Education Service, an opportunity to survey the present contexts of Church developments that impacted on school chaplaincy. It was appreciated by delegates that the two senior officers of their respective denominations chose again to speak from a common platform and clearly had an extremely cordial working relationship.
Nigel began by emphasising the era of uncertainty that we were in. The Queen’s Speech did not really emphasise education in great detail. The Church of England had published its ‘Vision for Education’ since the previous Conference. It was subtitled ‘Deeply Christian: Serving the Common Good ‘ and emphasised ‘Life in all its fullness’, ‘Wisdom and Knowledge’, ‘Hope and Aspiration’, ‘Dignity and Respect’ and ‘Living in Community’. The Church of England had also launched a leadership initiative – the ‘Leadership Foundation’ and this was proving successful. Nigel believed that new grammar schools would not be created, free school meals retained and the current autonomy of school-led systems downplayed as the direction of state education moved back from Downing Street to the DfE. Funding would remain under pressure. It was suggested that chaplains had a really important role within schools, especially under current circumstances, so they should ‘seize the moment’. Nigel ended by emphasising the Archbishop of Canterbury’s two groups of priorities, Prayer, Evangelism and Reconciliation and Renewal, Reform, Education and Chaplaincy.
Paul Barber began by suggesting that the 50% admissions cap on faith places in a faith school would be abolished and that the government now had an aspirational statement from the Queen’s Speech to ensure that ‘…every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded…’.
Earlier in the year the Catholic Bishops’ Symposium had issued a reminder that Christ was at the centre of Catholic education, that a place in a Catholic school should be available for every Catholic child and that schools should have a coherent educational vision, distinctive in a profoundly human and Christian way. There was a growing emphasis on effective mission in Catholic schools and a new strategy for leadership and governance was being developed. Dioceses would have a re-defined role in all this on the basis of a renewed commitment to support and invest in Catholic education.
Recent tragic events, (Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Grenfell Tower) Paul suggested wold enhance further the significance of chaplains in schools.
The first day of the Conference ended with a theatre presentation from the ‘RISE’ Theatre Company - a very compelling series of presentations about human flourishing. This was followed by Compline.
The second day began, after Morning prayer, led by Br Paulo from the Taizé Community, with a magisterial talk ‘Reinvigorating the Kingdom’ from the Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, Professor Gerald Pillay. He referred to the Church’s obsession with decline, its loss of influence in public discourse and its marginalisation. Yet for the first 250 years of its history the Church was a persecuted minority. It had no buildings but it did have a creative theology and a very powerful apostolic tradition. When the Roman Emperor, Constantine accepted Christianity on behalf of his empire he then became its public sponsor and for the next thousand or more years Christianity became conflated with nationalism.
Recently, Professor Pillay stated, we have seen the rapid growth of secularisation, the separation of church from state and the apparent break-up of Christendom, with Protestantism as a key ingredient. This scenario is, however, very Eurocentric, the original centre, Jerusalem, now being itself at the margin. The Church is very vibrant in the most unexpected places. A third of all English Catholics live in Liverpool, a figure that has grown through the presence of some 900 Filipino nurses in the city. In India, Kerala has a very strong Christian minority. China now has 50 million Christians. We too must learn to be a vibrant minority but still a part of one of the oldest and biggest organisations in the world. There are now more Christians in the South and East Hemispheres than in the North and West Hemispheres!
Nevertheless, Professor Pillay rejoiced in the fact that ‘God has broken into time and space through Christ’ and we are still coming to terms with the implications of this. One of the most important ways in which these implications may be seized upon is through education. Literacy is an important precursor of faith. He cited the significance of education in the era of Charlemagne and the Christian connection with learning that saw this faith’s identification with the establishment of new universities across Europe and with the Papacy’s determination to protect academic freedoms. It was all the more surprising that it took until the 1830s for society to realise the need for schools for all children and it took until the 1870s for this to be enacted in UK legislation.
Professor Pillay asked ‘What is the Kingdom of God amongst us?’
He answered it by observing that it was present anyway and by commenting (as had Paula Gooder) that Christ’s teaching about it was indirect. Chaplains, he asserted, live in and discern our times – including the characteristics of the Kingdom of God. They represent the long view of civilisation and culture. Chaplains carry a proper conscience for the actions of society. They interpret and ‘play back’ to society and they are motivated by a calling – a vocation. Chaplains live out and model the incarnate life – the ‘Word’ made flesh and dwelling among us. Chaplains present Christian truth to our (and all) culture. Chaplains are ‘the salt of the earth’.
Then followed the Conference Eucharist at which the president was the former Bishop of Exeter, Rt Revd. Michael Langrish and the preacher, Revd Joanna Jepson. Choral music was provided by choristers from Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
In her sermon Joanna Jepson assured us that a preacher had to identify with those receiving the words of preachment and that she understood the nature and great significance of school chaplaincy. She supported this by observing just how obsessed schools had become (responding to external pressures) by success, achievement and accolades. Chaplains, she argued, had to deal with the whole of the lives of students in school. The Christian life – indeed, any life – involved despair as well as happiness, loneliness as well as friendship and feelings of forsakenness as well as community.
Joanna Jepson then, movingly, drew on her experience within Louisiana State Penitentiary where the sentences of inmates can be as long as 93 years! She gave testimony about how new lives in Christ had been discovered by inmates there and how this was played out through service in the penitentiary hospital, by renewed contact with family and by actively seeking forgiveness. She referred to Christ’s parable of the single grain of wheat and gave thanks for the ministry of school chaplains and their life-enhancing role.
The next Conference presentation was from Miriam Kearney, the newly-appointed Development worker for Chaplaincy Central. She succinctly summarised the need for support for the frequent loneliness of chaplains, the celebration of moments of great joy and insight that accompanied the role, the challenges of being on the margins of church hierarchies and gave the stark statistic that 95% of all teenagers have no contact with any church whatsoever – hence the vital significance of school chaplains. Miriam intended to build up regional school chaplaincy hubs and to offer increasing resources for the ministry of school chaplains. Miriam wished to make contact with as many conference attendees as possible and gave her email address – email@example.com - and the twitter handle for Chaplaincy Central - @ChaplaincyCentral.
The final presentation of the day was from Janet Graffius, the Archivist of the Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. It was very powerful, very moving and very different. Jesuits, she said, ‘collect things’. The College now had accumulated over 100,000 items dating back to the 16th Century and part of her role was to make their existence known to the wider public and to rationalise their storage, display and usefulness to religious witness. Amongst the artefacts brought to the Conference was a small gold cross adorned with pearls given by Thomas More to his wife, Edith.
Janet Graffius had been encouraged in her work not only by the College itself but by the power of the artefacts themselves and what they ‘said’ about the lives and faith they represented. She illustrated her presentation by photographs, comments on the human context of items that she showed and historical background where necessary. She spent significant time referring to the martyrdom on 24th March, 1980, whilst saying Mass, of Bishop Oscar Romero in a hospital chapel in El Salvador. His vestments and much of his clothing worn during the mass are in the possession of the College and she pointed out the coincidence that the Gospel text for the Mass was one of the foundational text for the Conference – the grain of wheat falling to the ground (John 12: 24-26).
The worship at the end of the day’s formal sessions was based on ‘Evening Prayer’ from the Book of Common Prayer, as an acknowledgment of the presence and sponsorship of the Prayer Book Society. Revd Wealands Bell very skilfully wove its material into a variety of settings which made for a highly unusual but very powerful liturgy.
The final day of the Conference began with a most poignant and absorbing Ignatian contemplation, given by Fr Adrian Porter SJ, and based on the narrative of the encounter with a Samaritan woman by Christ at Jacob’s Well. It spoke directly to every one of those who attended it.
The final presentation was from Professor Robert Beckford, of Canterbury Christ Church University. It was entitled ‘The Kingdom of God in the Age of Black Lives Matter’ and it was a real tour de force, interspersed with sharp humour.
Professor Beckford began autobiographically, referring to his mother’s founding of three Pentecostal churches, his father’s love of cooking, his own love of sport, the influence of a Marxist teacher, the power of the media and a key – frightening -moment when he was trapped in a van between rival demonstrating groups from the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League respectively. He began to connect very powerfully the themes of faith and social justice which have been a hallmark of his work ever since. This formed the basis of his very memorable, powerful presentation.
Professor Beckford then approached the Kingdom of God from the post-colonial experience of the West. Ideas about the Kingdom were radically different depending on whether you were a white or a black European or American. Demographic changes in British churchgoing had seen a dramatic increase in black attendance. There were unresolved, dissonant issues in how the Christian story is regarded and understood by black and white individuals and these were then explored. Professor Beckford referred to the Colston window in Bristol Cathedral and reminded us that Edward Colston, a Bristol merchant, MP and slave trader who had become extremely wealthy though the slave trade. Professor Beckford did not, however, accept that we should endeavour to sanitise the past. It was as it was. We were in the midst of the city (Liverpool) that became the second largest port of the British Empire in part because of the slave trade. The Bible had been used as a justification for this trade and was a tool of empire, including what amounted to genocide.
In Jamaica, there were examples of Christian ministers who were not at all disturbed by social injustice and the treatment of those with no rights. One such was Revd George Wilson Bridges who wrote criticisms of William Wilberforce, all in contra-distinction to Galatians 3:28! By contrast there were those who railed against it, including Sam Sharpe, a Baptist, who declared ‘I would rather die among yonder gallows than live in slavery.’ Sam was involved in the Jamaican Baptist uprising of 1832.
Professor Beckford used these social contexts to ask whether the Kingdom of God was a present or future reality. He argued that in western theology black experience and theological reflection had been excluded. More books, he claimed, had been written about animal theology than about black theology. He gave us the memorable question ‘I wonder if heaven got a ghetto?’ He then asked delegates to name any work of theology or theologian who had radically transformed society. Martin Luther king was the only one, he contended, who had succeeded. He suggested that more theological space should be given in context to debtors, forgiveness, hypocrisy and injustice. Black lives did matter to God, along with the lives of every individual and he ended by referring to a number of projects with which he is associated (including the Jamaican Bible Remix Project) and then showed a film about the fate of a number of black individuals who had met their deaths in Britain over the past 35 years.
The Conference drew to a close with a short reflection on its themes from Dr Jan Goodair, Chaplain of Pocklington School, followed by a film of the Conference’s key moments, produced by Paul Sanderson, Chaplain of the Littlehampton Academy.
One of the publications given to all delegates at the Conference is ‘A School Chaplain’s Vade Mecum’ which SCALA has produced in collaboration with Gresham Books (a Conference sponsor) in order to make available the re-worked National Standards for School Chaplains, together with some review material and role specifications. Copies are available from the SCALA office.
The Organising Committee of the Conference is very grateful for the huge amount of work invested in it and the recording of the planning meetings by Jill Shorthose (Woodard Corporation Administrator) and Paul Hansford (SCALA’s own Administrator). Very sadly, Jill was hospitalised before the Conference and so much of the final organisation fell to Paul. Jill is now out of hospital and is very sad that she missed the Conference. Her colleague from Woodard, John Sherratt, also helped with printing and came up to Liverpool in order to assist with the setting up of the Conference. We would like to thank Paul for running the Conference office and Judy West (the Director’s partner) for assisting him.
After consultation, the dates of the next National Conference have been provisionally fixed for Wednesday 12th – Friday 14th June 2019, also at Liverpool Hope University.
A small selection of individual comments from the 2017 Conference
"Very good - unmissable. You can quote me on that! (Fr Matthew Askey)"
"Always thought provoking and creative"
"Very enjoyable. it was my first (National Conference) and it ticked every box for me."
"A bi-annual treat! It provides the spiritual top-up/support needed in a potentially lonely job and also keeps me up to date with scholarship."
"A really good and encouraging experience."
"My first one - I thought it was excellent. Exceeded expectations!"
"Valuable experience and looking forward to 2019."
"Most enjoyable and informative."
"It is great to come together from our different backgrounds, to learn from one another and reignite passion for our calling, as we encourage and build one another up."
"I will come again."
"Excellent. Very good balance. Fantastic to have so much input."
"Stimulating - much of great use. Well worth coming to."
"Will highly recommend it."
Location: Liverpool Hope University