Warm Fires and Open Doors

It was quite a surprise to find today that I am quoted at some length in the Church of England’s new discussion document “The fruits of the Spirit” on Character Education: https://churchofengland.org/media/2386307/fruits_of_the_spirit.pdf, with my catchphrase “Warm Fire and Open Doors” becoming one of its chapter headings.

The quotes are from a speech I gave last year to a national conference for members of the C of E’s diocesan education teams, and as it is now buried well back on this blog I a, reproducing it here again for anyone who wants to see the full text, with a link to my follow on speech “From Values to Virtues” at the end.

Read about the background to the new report at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/10/launch-of-character-education-report.aspx


Our schools matter because every child matters, and every child matters because they matter to God. It’s a key part of the good news that we are called on to proclaim afresh, and therefore re-imagine, in every generation. So what does that look like to me as a bishop? Where for me do our church schools fit within the whole mission of a diocese today?

My ministry at the moment is in Suffolk, which is a wonderful patchwork of largely small communities, from whose shores sail many little vessels, amongst which the container ships of Felixstowe are a strange and modern innovation. So my vision is not of HMS Church as a single big liner or battleship (or even a hospital ship) sailing off into the sunset of heaven, but as a flotilla of all sorts of craft, many small and close to the water, helping as many people as possible to sail the seas of life well and to God’s good purpose.

Small country churches, big gathered ones, Fresh Expressions, networks, chaplaincies, internet communities, schools, religious orders, cathedrals … they are all boats in the flotilla, occasionally coming together under one big roof as Church, but most often cutting their own wake, each as Church where they are.

I slipped schools into the list – did you notice? Amongst the churches. It would be interesting to ask you what a church does in your experience that a good school does not do too? They’re not the same of course – but the list of similarities will be a lot longer than the list of differences. Perhaps I could call our schools ecclesial communities, and invite you to re-imagine an older and richer picture of church than the one we’ve got used to, in which churches are specialised religious centres and everything else is secular.

I’m a bishop by day but a mediaevalist by night, and go back 500 years or so and what now look like hospitals and insurance companies, trades unions and schools, road-repair franchises and business associations, dining clubs and even breweries were all ecclesial, integrating faith and life, worship and practice, and sharing a common set of values and virtues – something I’ll come back to tonight.

I’d like to imagine schools as one family of ships within such a flotilla for today, sailing under twin ensigns of ethos, both of which are essential, and which I’ll call Warm Fires and Open Doors. By Warm Fires I mean a vibrant and attractive sense of our Christian identity; and by Open doors I mean a real welcome to anyone and everyone to gather round the fire.

This is in fact the DNA of the Christian Gospel – and also of our modern C of E. It reaches right back into the identity of God who creates and then gives freedom, who saves with costly compassion, whose wind of inspiration blows through our boundaries. It stands in full continuity with the establishment of the Church of England as a very deliberate and very English solution to the need of society both to take faith seriously as part of its common life and common good, but not to set windows into men’s souls.

We would be worse off if either we lost the clarity and warmth of the fire at the centre, or started to close the door on some because they were not already committed to it enough. We need to combine good strong roots, a robust sense of church and school alike as Christian or “in Christ”, with a very open door, always inviting but never forcing, leaving room for questioning, doubt, disagreement, journeying and just looking. Lose either “pole” and it all goes wrong. Get it right and what might look like weaknesses are in fact strengths.Supportive but not explicitly Christian staff, students of many faiths and none, worship wheresome are committed but others “just looking” are all exactly where we would expect to be. And in fact they represent a powerful model of mission, in which the good news and the good things of God are lived out and celebrated in all sorts of places, and then the celebrants work their way back, as it were, to the great celebration, the big roof under which we all gather, wherever we started from and wherever we’ve reached on our journey. From that unity, as it re-discovers and affirms its common life and foundation and faith, new energy flows out back into highways and byways of the world, reaching even further than before, only once again to return. Like the incarnation really.

An important image for me of how this works spiritually in church or school comes from the image of the Vine in John 15, which I believe offers us an attractive and organic model of the marks of church. The Vine has its stem and Roots in Christ, setting solid foundations of faith and values. It has Shoots which are our fellowship together in Him, learning and growing; and it has Fruits which by DNA and design are there for others, for giving away. We need them all. And with them all in place we see natural, organic life and fruitfulness.

Such a model starts to fill out the story of why some of things that matter to all schools and all the ships in our flotilla really do matter – because remember, our faith is that what we believe is not just our opinion but fundamentally true across the board, and that the gospel is good news for everyone, whatever their take on it; so we are in the business not so much of swapping out the good and valuable things of the world for a new set, as explaining whywhat we already glimpse as good matters and so enabling it to matter more.

Take Roots for instance. Every school has its values agenda and display. It’s often a bit of a pick-and-mix selection from the fashionable themes of the day. In our faith we have a foundation that explains why some things will always really matter, why good is good, why there can be meaning and hope, and which turns “values” from simply the big people telling the little people what to do into sharing with them the ways to live that will help them really flourish. So we are able to say why Every Child Matters: not because the Government says so, or even the Church, but because they are a child of God and matter to him.

Then Shoots. Every school wants to be as inclusive as possible, differentiating its learning but valuing every aspect of that diversity, and building the school community. We know whythis inclusivity and valuing of diverse gifts in the one body is important, why every child is gifted and talented in some way: because we are living out the nature of God, the body of Christ. God’s basic choice is to include us, not as a matter of policy, but as a passion.

And Fruits. Non-church schools are sometimes trumpeted as community schools, with the implication that faith schools aren’t. But just about every school I’ve visited of whatever kind likes to think of itself as there for the community. And Church schools are often thecommunity schools par excellence: I am thinking of the great work of The Vine School in the new-build development at Cambourne in Cambridgeshire, for instance, which lives out its iconic name as a lead builder of community amongst the concrete; or countless tiny village schools in  Suffolk which are at the heart of their settlement. And again, this is no surprise because while for some community is just a mantra, for us it is a gospel imperative. We know that unless we share our good things with others as God has shared with us, they will go off, go peculiar, like the lovely Christmas pate we bought and then left in the fridge for too long.

Another model we might use is that of Acts 2, where the first disciples are seen living out those marks for the first time. I’ll quote the Bible passage this time:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generoushearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

It’s not a surprise if these marks of the church are in fact the same as the roots, shoots and fruits we described earlier. The church believes, praises God and celebrates the eucharist, it has fellowship together and learns to live the new life, and then it gives its good things away

In the world of Fresh Expressions, the Nicene Creed is often used to generate a similar set of benchmarks for an emerging church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – Holy in its Roots, One and Catholic (connected that is with the whole church) in its Shoots, and Apostolic in its Fruits. It’s the same picture.

Going back to Acts, it’s interesting to note that having the goodwill of the people and seeing them added to the company just comes as a natural consequence. I am actually quite up for evangelism, but this is a timely reminder that evangelism can be a response to anxiety as well as confidence, and that our mission is at heart a sharing in God’s mission: the whole world is his creation and his love, he got there first, and he is about his business whether we catch up with him or not. Thank goodness.

One thing that stands out in the Acts 2 list, though, and which needs a special mention because it can cause concern in a school, is the obvious and necessary emphasis in the roots department not just on faith and values expressed in a warm fluffy way, but on belief and worship. Is that a problem? Is it the issue that derails my whole project? If we start to be explicit about the faith and actually worship out loud, as it were, do we stop ourselves from being able to reach out to everyone?

Not at all. Remember the two poles, as I called them, of our mission. The key is to be really clear and consistent on both. Unless we can be honestly clear about the foundations we have no real offer to make to others. But unless we are honestly and really allowing of others to respond in their own way, we are not making a good offer but exercising coercion. One way this has been described in recent theology is that our task is not to silence other stories about how the world is, but to out-narrate them, to make our story, our account of reality, origins, values, purpose so attractive and so convincing that it does indeed win the goodwill of the people and draw them in. That’s how Jesus did it, after all. And doing it his way is as important in our parishes as in our schools.

That means that story is very important. Godly Play, Open the Book, Messy Church: all tell the story and take an open offer approach. It’s very encouraging! Godly Play in particular makes a particular point of taking us to the thresh-hold of faith and worship, to use an older concept, and accepting our wondering as we stand at the door and perhaps hear Christ’s knock. That’s why a school eucharist at which a celebrant leads with faith, a few confirmed people make their communion, and many others are invited to say Amen to what resonates for them is not a problem but an opportunity, and a model in fact of how mission can work. And looking not just at the statutory school hours but the whole available day, in premises open not just for classwork but to the community, makes pitching such an offer in the right way for each particular circumstance much more possible.

Warm fires and open doors, drawing on our own life in Christ to offer life in all its fullness to all who are drawn to it, and in that context giving every child the deepest knowledge of his or her worth, the best growth in gifts and skills, and the widest opportunity to make a difference for good in the world: that’s an imaging that does it for me!

For the address which followed on “From Values to Virtues”, bringing Aristotle and the medieval Seven Virtues up to date go to https://bpdt.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/from-values-to-virtues/