I hope the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, had a good Easter. The poor man has been kicked left, right and centre by commentators, newspaper editorials, colleagues and church goers this weekend over comments he made suggesting church schools should benefit the whole community rather than merely those who go to church.
I hope the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, had a good Easter. The poor man has been kicked left, right and centre by commentators, newspaper editorials, colleagues and church goers this weekend over comments he made suggesting church schools should benefit the whole community rather than merely those who go to church. His timing, on Good Friday, was a tad incendiary but the Bishop may have proposed something that would make the Church of England’s status as the established church of this country more likely to continue rather than less.
The Bishop proposes that the 4800 Church of England schools stop selecting so many of their pupils from those who go to church : “What I would be saying is that number ought to be minimised because our primary function and our privilege is to serve the wider community,” he told the Times Educational Supplement. “Ultimately I hope we can get the number of reserved places right down to 10%.” The comments, predictably, drew all sorts of fury from those who claim the faith aspect of CoE schools is the very thing that makes so many of them so good. It would make a mockery of the whole system if there were more atheists or muslims than Christians in a CofE school, they say.
But we all surely know people who went to church just to get their kids into school, who faked a faith (albeit a fairly wishy-washy one) to get a good reference from the vicar. Instead of pious fear of religious loss do I hear the cry of middle class outrage that they might not find it so easy to get their kids into the “good church school” in their area if such changes come about?
When my daughter was ready for primary school we applied to the nearest one to our home – a Church of England primary school which happened to have a very good reputation and was very much a center of the community. We went to their open day and school fete – it all seemed very welcoming, much like the CofE primary school I went to for a while as a young child. But when it came to admissions we didn’t get in. We were at the bottom of the pile, below those who went to the local Church of England, then those who went to other Churches of England, then other denominations of Christians, then other religious faiths. In our admissions year there were so many Christians, or those claiming to be, that non-Christians didn’t really get a look in. I’m not saying this is how I felt, but it is easy to see how others in this situation might conclude “Ah. So they are happy to take my money but not my children”.
Put aside the question of whether state funded faith schools should exist at all. Let’s assume it is a done deal. For now no mainstream political party dares take on such potentially powerful voting groups as practising Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs – all of whom benefit from or aspire to benefit from faith schools. (The fact Clegg and Miliband seem to be atheist and Cameron struggling CofE doesn’t matter) The Church of England already struggles to get people through the church doors. Exposing children of all faiths to its values can only be a good thing. Exposing them to a good education will reap much greater dividends for us all. More significantly it might improve the way faith schools sceptics feel about the funding of institutions they now have a near equal chance of getting into.
The Bishop doesn’t explicitly say it, but his plea to serve the wider community might also have an effect on the debate over the Church of England’s status as the established church. As time goes on more people question whether the church should have such a say in our law- making process, and whether the Monarch should be the head of any particular church. By embracing the wider community the Church of England might just make itself more relevant to those people who now see it as something to be downgraded. They might see some good that affects them directly from having an established church which feels a sense of responsibility to the whole state. The Bishop might just have hit on something much bigger than what school your child gets into.