EDUCATION has been in the news a lot this month, as it always is in August; this has been exacerbated by the breath-taking chaos surrounding A level and GCSE results in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Distress surrounding this will have affected some of you, both pupils and teachers – please be assured of our prayers. Education is a big thing in this parish: people care deeply, and for good reasons, about which schools their children go to, and many young people here in Beckenham work very hard to go to good colleges and universities. This reflects the life of the Catholic Church in this country, in which education has always been very important: the mission of the Church since the end of penal times has been built around the provision of good Catholic schools and educational institutions. As a Church we are big and distinctive ‘stakeholders’ in education.
At the time when results were being calculated (if that’s the right word) it was reported that to make life easier for next year’s GCSE students poetry would become optional in the English curriculum (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53645824 ). I learnt this a couple of weeks after the death in Cambridge of Professor Nicholas Lash, shown here. Nicholas, whom I knew a little through the Catholic Theological Association, became in the late 70s the first Catholic to be appointed as a Theology professor in Cambridge since the Reformation; for many years he was an inspirational figure, not just in Cambridge, for those researching or teaching theology. In one of his best-known books, Theology on Dover Beach, writing about worship and celebration, Lash says that what the Church ‘most deeply needs are those apparently “useless” people, the poets and prophets who sing the songs of freedom.’ Amidst all the ineptitude of the last month over education, this side-lining of poetry by government Diktat, while less dramatic, speaks volumes about the intellectual degradation of this country and the philistine attitudes of our rulers. Gone are the days when education was about forming young people in knowledge of God and world: rather, it must be functional and utilitarian, simply geared to getting young people well paid jobs (a task in which it is rather failing): hence the decline in arts, humanities, modern languages, never mind classics and theology. Poets and prophets are useless in this brave new world.
By contrast the Catholic Church has a distinctive philosophy of education; this has always set us apart. This is why we have Catholic schools and other educational institutions, and why we have invested so much in them in lots of ways. At the heart of a good Catholic school is religious faith, centred on a relationship with Jesus Christ and the life and teachings of the Church about how we should live; no Catholic school worthy of the name would ever teach pupils that the most important thing in life is to make as much money as possible. Let us hope Catholic schools at least manage to avoid the side-lining of poetry.
The current pandemic really hasn’t overcome differences between people or between outlooks: rather it has accentuated divisions, so our vision can be clarified because of these strange few months. Children will be returning to school at St Mary’s and other schools in great numbers this week, and we should pray that they and the staff of schools will be kept safe and be properly protected; many young members of our parish will be starting in new schools, colleges and universities. While we pray for students and staff in educational institutions, particularly those that are part of the Catholic community, this time of crisis gives us an opportunity to think about the nature of education. What is it for? What is really important to us about education? Why is it that we feel so angry when we see how much distress young people have experienced in the last few weeks?
As you know in our parish we are embarking on a process of renewal, aimed at moving away from simply seeing what we do at St Edmund’s in terms of maintenance, towards being a more effective missionary community. Catholic education has always played a big part in mission, here and all over the world. So we should consider, as part of this process and prompted by the last few months of this pandemic, the place Catholic education has in this. Why is it important for us to have Catholic schools? Are we doing enough to support our schools? What are our motives when we apply for a place for our children? Why is it important for some families to have a child admitted to a Catholic primary school but not necessarily a Catholic secondary school? How far does our Catholic faith inform what we think about schools?
What we believe about education does say something about the place of God in our lives. If we allow ourselves to be renewed, perhaps in spite of everything, the Church, to use Professor Lash’s words, will be enriched by having more prophets and poets to sing the songs of freedom. May he rest in peace.