Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Faith based schools: Past their sell-by-date?

Listening to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last night offering to give temporary patronage to a school catering for non Roman Catholic immigrants got me thinking…..Certainly he is to be highly commended for stepping in to help these families whose children cannot find a place in our primary schools because of the lack of an appropriate baptismal certificate but another thought also occurs: Why is this not such a bad idea on a more permanent basis? Why should Catholic schools only provide for Catholic kids? And similarly why should Church of Ireland schools only cater for Church of Ireland kids? What are the churches hoping to achieve through their involvement with education? Is it really about spiritual formation and indoctrination? Or is it the elusive concept of ethos, and if so what is this whole ethos thing about and is it significantly different to the ethos in society at large?

As one who has attended schools of both denomination and in my work have an ongoing role in schools of both denominations I would have to say: NO - not now, whatever about the past when differences may have been more acute! Schools of both traditions reflect European Christian (and now post-Christian) civilization, mirroring society at large. They may differ in areas of doctrine taught in RE class but otherwise the so called unique ethos of our schools is a shared one, both across the traditions and with the rest of Irish society.

Ahh yes, but what about preparation for First Communion and Confirmation? A good question indeed, where in many cases preparation for these rituals is overseen by teachers whose own involvement in the Church is otherwise a zero sum! Surely this fools paradise is neither helpful to the children or the teachers who are forced to play the game by going through the motions. Much better by far to let the parents and the local church of whatever denomination do this preparation outside the school context. At least then it could be reasonably assumed that those preparing the children might have a genuine level of personal commitment. Children can spot a fake a mile off! Politicians would have a much rougher ride if we gave the vote to primary school children!

But there is another fatal flaw in this whole faith school based approach to faith formation. It is rooted in the model of Church as a club with rules of membership and association. That model is no longer valid! Children today don’t operate on the basis of club loyalties and boundaries. Like the rest of society they network freely with one another regardless of ethos or creed in new communities of shared interest and association; communities which pay no heed to and have no understanding of the exclusive model of community that our churches still find it so hard to let go of.

If the churches, and any faith community for that matter, are to have a future in education it is surely better focussed in providing a high standard of education to all our children which simultaneously promotes a mutual respect for the ever growing variety of religious tradition, ethnicity and spiritual expression on this island. Perhaps this is a role better suited to Educate Together and other like minded organisations but what a shame it is that the churches only seem to see their role in education in terms of reinforcing the troops and maintaining the battlefronts.

It is amazing that all our Christian traditions, which claim to follow in Jesus one who spent his whole life breaking down boundaries and setting people free from institutional bondage are now enslaving people to hypocracy and deceit. On the one hand we are forcing people into the hypocracy of going through rituals they do not believe in so that they can get places in their local school and our teachers likewise into sharing a faith that is not always their own so that they can keep their jobs in faith based schools. In using faith as a bargaining chip for the provision of education we are turning faith into a currency and by implication our relationship to God into an economic transaction. For the Christian, Grace is something that is freely given by God, no strings attached. By its very nature it cannot be repaid. If God gives us this gift without conditions how can we as Church attach confessional conditions to the provision of education? I think the time has come to ask ourselves just what it is we think we are doing in faith based education. Faith of whatever type should be about building bridges not walls! As followers of Jesus if we don't get that then we have completly missed the point!


Allen said...

As someone who was lives and was brought up in Northern Ireland I feel I should add a comment to your faith based education article.

Children in Northern Ireland are still (on the whole) educated seperately based on being from either a Protestant or Roman Catholic background. So a wedge of difference is placed between children from the outset. The them and us mentality has its first seed.

This is wrong in my opinion. I firmly believe that Church and education should be seperate. This will provide parents with the freedom and responsibility to bring their children up in the faith of their choice while giving the child the experience of interacting with other children with other faith backgroungs. It also properly relfects the nature of the human family as a multi cultured and multi faith based people.

Stephen Neill said...

Amen Allen