Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith Schools: from theology to practice

Schools are the battleground of ideas that will define the future of our society. Children will be hugely influenced by what you tell them at a young age. As a society what are we going to teach the next generations in our schools? People with strong belief systems (whether religious or secular) are therefore likely to have robust opinions about schooling and in particular faith schools. In the midst of this debate I want to set out what I consider would be a good Christian school starting with theology, moving through values to policy. I write using the Christian example, but I don’t believe that this rules out a good Muslim school. This piece is not designed to defend all faith schools or their policies and the approach here is not that of all Christian schools.

There is a strong emphasis in the Bible on ‘building God’s kingdom’ (Many of you like me who went to a C of E school will have learned the Lord’s prayer - ‘Thy Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven’ – my italics). This means that we are (very junior) partners with God in creating a society as God intended it to be before we all got tangled up in sin. In the gospels ‘God’s kingdom’ is compared to earthly kingdoms which are held together by force and coercion and God’s Kingdom which comes about through people’s free choice.

There is also an emphasis in Christianity about giving freely of the good things that we have, with no strings attached. God gave his son freely to the human race and allowed him to die and we should follow God’s example with our money, ideas, gifts and time. Therefore if Jesus says that He can give life in all its fullness and we find that to be true then Christians have a responsibility to assist and support people and communities who choose to do that.

Schools are an important building block in society and also an arena where Christians can give freely of valuable (certainly not complete) understanding of how to live life well. Crucial positive values and practices for schools can emerge from the theological roots crucial outlined above: that each individual treated as someone created with loved by God with unique gifts; a strong caring community rooted in compassion (not just tolerance or respect) for others; and modelling strong moral characteristics including self-confidence, giving selflessly and leading others wisely and honestly. For all the evil that has been done in the name of Christianity down the years there is also a strong tradition and working out of these values as part of faith down the years and within the church there is still an explicit desire to practice and live these tough values, with God’s help.

Whilst it is possible to instil these values in children in a secular school and there are many good schools with excellent head teachers and staff that do this, it is hard to do. We live in a society where learning to live well is not normally explicitly practised or desired. You cannot just turn ‘values’ on at a tap. They have to come from somewhere and they have to be practised. We all know that we’d like to be kinder; more self-assured without arrogance; wiser leaders, but if it was easier to do our country would be a lot better place to live in. I’m not saying that churches have this sorted by any stretch of the imagination, but that they are rooted in a history hundreds of years long of people who down the years have tried with God’s help to practise these values. There is also more likely to be an explicit subculture in a faith to encourage each other to learn to live well that can be passed on into a school and be a defining feature of it for many decades. A church aims to be in a community for generations; a head teacher, however good at creating a positive school culture will not.

To return then, to the principle of freely giving of what we have which is good. On these grounds selection on the grounds of faith in church schools is wrong. If, as Christians we are genuinely giving freely and sacrificially as God did then we cannot create schools just for our own children. I know that as a parent I would find this more difficult to say, but Christians should expect no favours from faith schools because of their beliefs. No selection would also rule out the sham of parents attending church to get their children in. That is bribing parents to attend church and God’s kingdom is not built by coercion.

If parents do not want to send their children to a faith school they are free to send them elsewhere and eventually faith schools or particular ones would close down. However, this is not the pattern at the moment and my experience working in London’s East End was that most parents found Christian values instinctively attractive, even if they were of no faith, nominal faith or other faiths. I have heard a number of Muslims say that they would rather send their children to a Christian school than a secular school, because of the values system and also that holding one faith can aid respect of someone holding another. The details and practice of a different faith can be worked out and taught at home and through the Mosque.

To build God’s Kingdom in society and to give freely of what we have that is good as God did. These two principles should be at the centre of all Christian faith schools. A friend of mine always used to explain a Christian community project he ran by saying that ‘faith was his motivation, not his hidden agenda’. The schooling of our children will rightly always produce passionate debates because the development and input they have at an early age is so important in who they turn out to be. My hope is that this debate will not always be as fraught as it has been in the past week as all sides seek to understand each others' motivations and make clear own agendas.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Find ‘The Squid and the Whale’ in a film of family break-up

If you’re looking for a film about sea mammals or a cute cartoon with talking fish, you’ve come to the wrong place. Maybe you should try here or here instead. If you’re more interested in a short feature about how teenage children cope with divorce then stick with me.

The Squid and the Whale focuses on one literary New York family during the traumatic first few months after separation. The film focuses on the loyalties of the two boys, Walt and Frank as they are pulled between their two trying-to-be-civil-but-not-really-managing-it parents. The parents, Bernard and Joan start out with the best of intentions about arranging an amicable split in the interest of their kids, but cannot help but say exactly the wrong thing and under a veneer of suburban reasonableness the tug of war quickly becomes more savage. Both children suffer confusion and doubt as their moral compass is spun around and writer/director Noah Baumbach perceptively captures the responses of the two different age teenagers. Angry at his mum for cheating on his dad the older Walt follows his father’s advice to ‘play the field’ and starts to make the same mistakes his father made. His younger brother’s reaction is portrayed as exhibiting itself through misbehaviour at school and running away between parents as he is unable to express the anger and confusion he feels.

Emotionally the parents are a mess, but the father especially seems to have no-one else on whom he can emotionally offload apart from his son. Expecting Walt to deal with his baggage as well as his own creates an insufferable burden. In one scene, seeing his dad sitting lonely in his new apartment, Walt feels he has to invite his dad along to a movie with his friend. Bernard then enters a relationship with one of his students as he tries to fulfil his emotional needs. The film is an indictment of the isolation and lack of community support in modern day living and also raises questions on a personal and political level about what support we can give separating parents. At the moment in the UK parents may get relationship counselling prior to break up, but following separation this normally stops and many couples get pushed unnecessarily towards solicitors and an adversarial legal set up. Many aren’t aware of the 3rd party mediation services that are available.

The film is devised as a short, intense feature and is very successful within this remit. However, it would have benefited from weaving in the story of a second family going through separation which would give Baumbach the opportunity to explore different ways parents and consequently their children handle family breakdown.

If you’ve got this far and are still wondering about the Squid and the Whale then you’ll have to go and watch this fascinating film to find out where they fit in, but don’t hold your breath looking for sea mammals.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lifting the veil?: Jack Straw’s comments articulate discomfort that we all need to address

I’ve only spoken to women wearing the veil on a small handful of occasions, but based on these meetings I have sympathy with Jack Straw’s comments last week. Over two-thirds of our communication is non-verbal and you quickly realise how much you rely on people’s facial gestures when you can’t see them. (Radio requires unique skills to do well and there is a reason why it’s not considered the ‘done thing’ to end a relationship over the ‘phone.) More than that though, because someone’s face is so much part of who they are as a person I find it deeply unsettling that people aren’t willing to share or display that individuality and sense of self. Instead they prefer to walk around incognito and stripping themselves of their individuality and personhood in terms of their relationship with the public world.

As someone with faith I respect and understand people’s desire to be completely committed to what they believe even when this is counter to the prevailing culture. However, to genuinely respect that decision rather than to merely tolerate it I need to understand and challenge women who wear the veil about why they do it and why it is an important part of their faith. This is especially important where there is a widespread belief amongst non-Muslims that wearing the veil is part of male oppression.

It’s not enough for women to say ‘I wear the veil because it’s part of my religion’ – not all Muslim women wear the veil. Why is it an integral part of the faith – how does it aid surrender and obedience to God? Is it an outward symbol of a deeper understanding or truth about who God has made us? How does wearing the veil fit within different tenets of Islam’s understanding of the roles and interaction between men and women? How does it enhance and contribute towards the quality of relationships within the Muslim Community? What exactly is the connection between the veil and relationships between men and women? Such questions are primarily for discussion within Islam, but non-Muslims should not shy away from asking searching questions in a spirit of understanding and engagement, especially on the basis of good one to one relationships.

Women have the right to wear the veil, but without hearing from Muslim women who make this choice directly I find it a puzzling decision when it hides and strips away such an important part of women’s individuality and personhood. Jack Straw’s comments are welcome and timely and articulate many people’s vague sense of discomfort (Listen to the radio phone-ins the day after). Straw’s actions can spark a more honest dialogue that can build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Women who wear the veil have a responsibility to explain their decision rather than respond to these measured comments as if making them was a threat to them practicing their beliefs. The rest of us must seek a genuine respect of others beliefs and ask the right questions.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Morals or safety at the Israeli embassy – we need to know

The media has got themselves in a muddle over the case of PC Alexander Omar Basha, the Muslim police officer moved from guarding the Israeli Embassy. The Sun, which broke the story this morning said that PC Basha was moved on ‘moral grounds’. The Muslim Association of Police Officers have said the reasoning was based on the officer’s ‘welfare’. (See this BBC news article.)

Scenario 1: Credible and specific threat – moved on grounds of welfare

If PC Basha has received credible and specific threats against the welfare of himself or family because he is guarding the Israeli embassy (presumably from Muslims who are against Israeli foreign policy) then his reassignment could be considered on safety grounds. If PC Basha was to publicly state that he was to remain guarding the Israeli embassy despite threats this would be a courageous gesture. It would demonstrate that he believed that violence towards any party in the Middle East was unacceptable even if he believed that Israeli foreign policy was fundamentally flawed. However this decision would be a difficult personal one and he should not be blamed if he decided not to take it.

Scenario 2: No credible and specific threat – moved on moral grounds
If PC Basha has received no specific or credible threat against himself and has been moved only on moral grounds then this is unacceptable. It indicates that either he is a pacifist and does not believe in the use of force (in which case he cannot be a police officer) or it indicates that he believes that people have the right to physically attack the Israeli embassy and those working there and representing Israel. Even if PC Basha fundamentally opposes and objects to Israeli foreign policy (the Sun claims that he has taken part in anti-war marches over the recent conflict in Lebanon) he cannot even tacitly support individual’s desire to harm Israeli property or people. He must either resign or guard the embassy.

It’s still not clear which scenario is in play. We need clarification from the Met as soon as possible.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

There's no fire without smoke

After the overwhelming lead taken by Common Sense at the fire fuelled Bridport Carnival in August it seems that Red Tape and Bureaucracy have pulled a goal back in Watford.

(Thanks to Kerron Cross for highlighting this)