Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima Sunday, also Education Sunday, 16th February 2014
1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

The Corinthians said, ‘I am of Paul; … I of Apollos ..’ I went to St Paul’s school; I went to Apollos’. Are you a grammar-school boy, like me? Or are you a Cranleighan, a Rugbeian, or a Carthusian, or a Wykehamist? Or did you go to Crouch End Primary, like Tony Hancock? And what difference does it make?

This Sunday is Education Sunday, in churches of all denominations. Today we offer prayer and thanksgiving for everyone in the world of education. In our lessons today, there are two examples of teaching: and teaching is surely a vital part of education, if not the vital part.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, we heard part of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon there has ever been. In the context of Education Sunday, we should focus on what Jesus said, what his message, his teaching, was. It was to show that, in the kingdom of heaven, simple utilitarianism, do-as-you-would-be-done-by, isn’t enough. If you are a Christian, you must go the extra mile, turn the other cheek. People often say that you don’t need to be a Christian in order to be a moral person, and Jesus wouldn’t disagree. He said he wasn’t there to destroy the law. The point is that he went further. Go the extra mile.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was concerned to stop the early Christians in Corinth squabbling and turning into factions among themselves. One of the dividing lines seems to have been about teaching, not about the content, the syllabus, but about who had been the better teacher, who had taught them Christianity better. Was it St Paul or was it his colleague Apollos?

The argument was a more or less tribal one, and you can see echoes of it today where people identify themselves partly by where they went to school. The idea is that you can recognise particular character traits, strengths and weaknesses, partly at least by knowing which school somebody went to. It clearly does make a difference which school you went to. More prime ministers have been to Eton than to any other school.

Church schools are perceived to be, on the whole, good schools, and there’s often competition for places at the local church school. There’s a very funny episode of the TV comedy ‘Rev’, about the trials and tribulations of a young vicar in an inner-city parish, where the majority of the congregation seems to be there only because they want the vicar to sign a letter to the school, a church school, saying that they are regular attenders. Indeed I gather that our Rector still writes letters to the head teachers of the various church schools locally, to confirm that certain parents are regular church-goers.

To some extent, church schools are controversial. The suggestion is that children are being indoctrinated by going to a Christian school, a school which has an avowedly Christian ethos. What if, the argument goes, the child comes from parents who are not Christians, but are, say, Moslems or Hindus? The answer is that there are provisions for parents belonging to another religion to opt out of Christian assembly or RE.

More recently we have seen the creation of academies and free schools: both are types of state school, which are not answerable to the local education authority. In Cobham, a free school has started, and there is competition between that free school and the existing church-based primary schools.

Now the Free School is bidding to expand into becoming a secondary school as well, and there is a big debate about the proposed site of the school off Portsmouth Road, where alongside the school itself a developer wants to build 500 houses – in return for which it will fund the land purchase and the cost of building the new school.

‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ What St Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really matter who the teachers were, however excellent they were: the question is, did the lesson take root in the pupils? Did God make that seed grow? Did God make that seed grow? You can have the best teachers, and no doubt the best premises, but you need something more. God must give ‘the increase’.

Of course if we look from a different angle at the support for church schools, you can’t deny that many of the parents, who seek out a church school for their children, are not actually churchgoers themselves. It may be these sort of parents who have been attracted to the new ‘free schools’, which claim to offer good teaching and effective education just like the church schools, but often without any religious affiliation.

I offered the other day to address an assembly at the Cobham Free School, to tell them something about the Foodbank. The teacher whom I spoke to said that, in fact, they don’t have a religious assembly at all. Once a month they do have a gathering which they call ‘worship’, but apparently God is not mentioned there.

I hope they know what they’re doing; because on the face of things it looks as though they are breaking the law, if nothing else. But quite apart from whether or not it’s illegal, is it right, right that children should be brought up in schools which no longer teach them anything about God? The law is very clear that schools must reflect the fact that ‘religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions’. That’s a quote from a circular from the Dept for Education, number 1/94, which makes it clear that all state schools must have a religious act of worship every day.

Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher from the Free School – in a way I hope it did – but it looks to me on the face of things as though, if they’re not actually breaking the law, they’re certainly not keeping to the spirit of it.

I suppose one could have an argument concerning whether or not schools should offer teaching about religion, along the same lines as the debate about the merits or otherwise of infant baptism.

The dividing line between indoctrination and education may be at times rather fine, but I do think that it is at least arguable that English schoolchildren should get to know a bit about what goes on in their parish church, and in the Church as a whole.

Of course, as they mature, children can then decide to what extent they accept the Gospel message and come to belief in their own right. They would then be making the transition which St Paul refers to between eating spiritual baby food and being weaned off it. My worry is that there are too many children in our community who are not even getting spiritual rusks.

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