The Church of England’s Vision for Education

The Church of England has published a fresh articulation of its “Vision for Education: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good”; a vision that is deeply Christian, with the promise by Jesus of ‘life in all its fullness’ at its heart.  This is worked out theologically and educationally through four basic elements: wisdom; hope; community; and dignity.  This vision reaches beyond Church of England schools as we aim to offer a compelling vision for the education of children and young people in community, independent and church schools, sixth form colleges, colleges of further education and universities.  Download a copy

Professor David Ford introduced the Vision to the House of Bishops in May, and his powerful and helpful address is reproduced below.

You have before you the first product of the work of the Theological Reference Group, convened to conceive a vision for education that might inspire the new Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership,[1] and other work we do in education.

The Prospect

The prospect is that not only are we founding a new organization that could do many worthwhile things – such as networking, sharing good practice, training the various stakeholders who have leading responsibilities (from heads and other teachers to governors, diocesan staff and clergy), doing research and advocacy, and encouraging vocations in education – but we are also helping to shape something like a movement motivated by a vision of educating for life in all its fullness. We have been encouraged by the enthusiasm we have found for this in many quarters, way beyond the Church and our own schools.

If I may make a personal comment: for nearly forty years I have been involved in various ways with a good many Church of England initiatives and documents but never before have I been part of something as important as this for both the Church and this country. Our long term commitment to education in schools (which is inseparable from our other two major nation-wide commitments, to chaplaincies and to our parishes, dioceses and national church bodies) has now come together with a time of change in the nation’s education system that both demands a constructive response from us and offers some golden opportunities. A new educational settlement is being worked out between the state and leading participants in civil society, with the next few years likely to be a crucial time in shaping it. For this time, I think we have the right team of people, led by our Archbishops and by Bishop Stephen, Nigel Genders and Joy Carter (she is the Vice-Chancellor of Winchester University who chairs the Steering Committee). They are not only up to doing what is necessary but, to quote the phrase that Eberhard Jüngel uses of how God acts, to doing what is ‘more than necessary’. And, alongside some opposition – this, as we know, is a controversial area – there is a great deal of goodwill towards this initiative from within the educational world and from other stakeholders, including those from other traditions, both religious and non-religious.

I had nothing to do with the conception of the Foundation, but I have come to think that it is an inspired response that will both help us to seize the current opportunities, and also let us sustain and enhance our contribution year after year. A well-formed organization, able to resource those dedicated to the education of our children, is something our Church, inspired by the Gospel, is in a position to give to this country for its benefit. Hence the strap-line of the vision: ‘Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good’. Since taking part in this project, now when I pray in the Common Worship daily office ‘for the world and its needs’ and then ‘for the Church and her life’, one of the things that connects the two most deeply is prayer for our children, teachers and schools.

The Vision

So, to the vision (whch I assume you have read). I want to make just two points about it now.

The first is about why the Church of England is right to be involved as it is in education, and to take this initiative. Section 2 of the vision gives our basic reasons for this, rooted in the Bible, in our tradition, and in our vocation as a Church to serve the wellbeing of the whole community. ‘Church schools for all’ is a purpose that has all sorts of tensions, challenges and complexities built into it. You will all be well aware of these, and we in the Theological Reference Group have discussed them intensively among ourselves and with many others. There is no simple solution to these, and, given our diversity, no single Church of England solution: the debates will go on, and we see the new Foundation hosting and resourcing them. But, after the process we have been through, one thing is very clear to us: ‘Church schools for all’ is the right purpose.

Why? In addition to the reasons given in the vision statement (where a fuller case is laid out), one that has gripped me more and more as I have got further into the Gospel of John is the importance of signs. Jesus says, as he breathes his Spirit into his disciples: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21) This is about mission. In John’s Gospel one of the things Jesus clearly comes for is to do signs, and these are above all signs of abundant life for all, such as healing, feeding, and raising the dead. And the first, archetypal sign, the arché tôn sémeiôn (John 2:11), is gallons and gallons of water turned into wine at the wedding at Cana. It is a sign that does what is necessary to save the day, and far more than is necessary. It was a quiet, untrumpeted sign, done for the common good of the host and guests, to celebrate one of the most universal social realities, coming together in marriage; and it seems that most of those present were not even aware that Jesus was responsible for it. Yet some, his disciples, did have eyes to see it, and believed.

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had begun to gather a community of disciples, learners. His first words to his first disciples were the fundamental question for any learning community: ti zéteite; – ‘What are you looking for? / What are you searching for? / What do you desire?’ and his disciples’ first title for him is Rabbi, Teacher (John 1:38). If we put together Jesus as teacher with Jesus giving signs of abundant life for the common good, and ourselves sent as he was sent (and even, according to the Farewell Discourses, to do ‘greater works’ than he had done – John 14:12), then ‘Church schools for all’ make deep sense as part of our mission. Our schools are signs of fullness of life for all, as they educate children for wisdom, knowledge and skills, for hope and aspiration, for community and living well together, and for dignity and respect. Many will enjoy the wine and not recognize where it originates; some will, with our help, trace it to who is responsible for it; but whether our inspiration for doing what we do is acknowledged or not, it is the right thing to do, – as followers of the One who came to bring life in all its fullness, to do signs that give glory to God.

The second point is about the diversity of religion and belief in our country. That comes up several times in the vision, and it is worth emphasising now. In the face of much impoverishment, narrowness and shallowness in our culture and in approaches to education, we are passionate about the need for richness, breadth and depth. Given the diversity of our society, that means recognizing multiple forms of richness, breadth and depth, and entering into conversations, negotiations and alliances across differences. The vision is of a healthily plural educational system in which we can be deeply Christian and others can be deeply themselves too. This we see as an implication of our strap-line, ‘Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good’. That common good is not a flat, thin, lowest common denominator that results when you have excluded everything distinctive and deep (especially everything religious), but it is a vibrant diversity of multiple depths, including depth of disagreement. We see the Foundation for Educational Leadership as one place where this ethos of multiple depths can be embodied and developed further.

The Challenge

Finally, there is the challenge to you.

It is given in the vision when we say: ‘We hope that Bishops will enter into the vision, devoting attention, time, energy, funding and leadership both to realizing it in dioceses and to enabling the Foundation to succeed.

In this project I see many things coming together in very good ways. They include our track record in education, the current educational changes and opportunities, the scope for effective collaboration among stakeholders and across differences, the recognition of how important educational leadership is, the desire for a healthily plural civil society in education as in other areas, and, above all, the elements of our vision, educating in the name of Jesus Christ for life in all its fullness.

But this project will not fly as it could unless people in key leadership positions make it a top priority. Something of a movement needs to happen around the new Foundation, followed through in every single Diocese; and that will demand a great deal of Church leaders – Archbishops, Bishops and Chairs of Diocesan Boards of Education in the first instance. Having myself just emerged from a dense web of institutional ties into the liberation of so-called ‘retirement’ I know I am speaking from a privileged position. But, when I look back on twenty-four years with senior responsibility in a university, I can see much more clearly now that there were just two occasions when it seemed right to clear space for a big project that was not part of the ordinary job. As I look at the Church of England’s educational involvements, challenges and possibilities now, I see something here much bigger than either of my two projects.

So I hope that each of you will clear the space for education as a top priority in the coming years. Realising this educational vision across the whole country is both an unprecedented opportunity and a massive task, and it will not go well without dedicated leadership that makes time for it and puts resources into it. I suspect there is a window of four to five years, beginning right now.

So I commend this vision to you. As I pray for the world and its needs, and for the church and her life, I will remember you daily as you bear your share of responsibility for the education of this country’s children. I close with the words of the Executive Head of two Church of England schools. Some of us spent hours talking with her, her schools’ ethos helped to inspire us, and she was very keen on the project of the Foundation. Her parting comment was: ‘We in the Church of England have a lot going for us in education. My worry,’ she said, ‘is that we will not be confident enough in having a very good thing.’

[1] We are one of three committees working on the Foundation, the others being the Steering Committee, chaired by Joy Carter, Vice-Chancellor of Winchester University, and the Development Committee, chaired by John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, which is aiming to raise many millions of pounds.