Chester Cathedral hosted a day conference on 9th November devoted to ‘The Joys and Challenges for Joint Anglican and Roman Catholic Schools’. SCALA has links with several of these schools and is very interested in the ways such ecumenical partnerships are developing and the evolution of a philosophy, theology and praxis of collaboration. Delegates were welcomed by the Bishop of Chester and a representative of the (Roman Catholic) Bishop of Shrewsbury. Students from St Chad’s joint CE/RC Academy in Runcorn led, very movingly, introductory worship after which Archbishop Malcolm McMahon (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool) talked about what we share – one faith, one baptism and one Christ – indeed, an understanding that Christ is in all things. It was possible through a focus in school on Christ and his representation of the Way, the Truth and the Life to grow common perceptions and purposes in such joint schools. The ‘Grace’ of God animated the distinctiveness of such schools, the Archbishop claimed. At a practical level such schools were beacons of social cohesion, evangelism and the living out of the Gospel. Challenges that the Archbishop foresaw included a rationale (desire or necessity) for the establishment of more such schools, harmonization of mission intent, a common battle against secularisation, ways in which such schools best served society and the need to maintain sufficient denominational identity within such joint enterprises.
Revd. Nigel Genders (Chief Education Officer for the Church of England) followed Archbishop Malcolm by stating that it was all too easy to focus on what divides rather than on what unites. Joint schools demonstrated unity of purpose, a serving of the common good and a capacity either to reconcile differences or to enact ‘good disagreement’ as commended by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Together, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have an involvement in over 30% of all primary schools in England and Wales and in excess of 15% of all secondary schools and academies, A significant proportion of independent senior schools have Anglican or Roman Catholic foundations. The Church of England through its dioceses is operating or bidding for free schools. The Roman Catholic Church is acknowledged to have a more developed educational vision but the Church of England has recently published its ‘Vision for Education’ subtitled ‘Deeply Christian: Serving the Common Good’. This can be accessed through the Church of England website. Underpinning all such vision and aspiration are questions such as ‘What is Education for?’ and the necessity for ethos to drive outcomes. These are crucial characteristics because they offer to the whole nation a thought-through alternative to the currently prevalent functionalist view of education that is dominated by short-term outcomes, targets and circumscribed procedures. A quality, world-changing education promotes ‘life in all its fullness’ and incorporates four elements, wisdom (and understanding), hope (facing the future and the capacity to be transformative), community (relating well to others) and dignity (made in the image of God and therefore aspiring to the best for each and every child).
Challenges to this approach include academisation (inter-denominational working has potential advantages of sustainability in an era of reduced resources and ambitious academy chains)), admissions (the need for local policies informed by guiding principles and coherent with school vision), appointments (finding for such schools heads who have a faith-related vision), the nature of RE teaching (political and pedagogic tensions about ‘entitlement’, content and centrality) and, finally inspection (fragmentation and locus of control). Nigel Genders was, however, confident that all these challenges could and would be met!
The Conference then heard from two heads of joint schools. The first, Simon Barker (formerly of Holy Trinity School, Barnsley) referred to the conundrum of the Eucharist, joint ethos statements, different but complementary prayer traditions, the balancing of admissions and representative governance. The second, Mark Millinson, Head of All Saints Inter-Church Primary Academy in March, emphasised the characteristics of listening (especially listening to God), reflection and having the courage of one’s convictions as he narrated his experience of leading such a school.
The conference then heard from Jenny Owen and Niall Hammond, Anglican and Roman Catholic chaplains respectively of St Chad’s, Academy in Runcorn. What ‘gladdens the soul’ in Jenny’s work was the creation of opportunities for faith conversations and the enrichment of lives that came from an embracing of faith. She was grateful to local churches which complemented the work she began in school. Niall referred to student involvement in liturgy, the academy’s faith council, charity work and students coming together to create symbols of Christianity for display around the school.
The conference was drawn together by group working, led by SCALA’s own Chair of Trustees, Priscilla Chadwick, who has very considerable experience of working within joint faith schools. She asked groups to examine and report back on issues that arose from the joint Anglican –Roman Catholic Committee document around identity, operational guidance, governance, curriculum issues, worship, the engagement of parents and the whole process and pragmatism of ‘walking’ together’ on such a very distinctive school faith journey.
It was a different but most illuminating day in Chester.