Thinking the unthinkable

Mar 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

Commenting on last Friday’s post regarding the expectations the church has of its clergy, Limerick blogger Bock the Robber comments from an atheist perspective, “the question has to be asked why clergymen of any denomination should have anything at all to do with managing primary schools?”

Even from a faith perspective, it’s a fair question.

The Church of Ireland community where I worked in south Co. Dublin was predominantly a community of pleasant, educated and cultured middle class people. It was a very pleasant community in which to live and work. As one would expect, the Church of Ireland primary schools tend to reflect the community from which the majority of their staff and pupils are drawn. They are good schools; they are well-resourced; they are very successful at securing funding; they have an excellent range of skills amongst the parent body; they reflect the middle class values of their community.

In the old days, twenty years ago, the lines were more firmly drawn as to which children qualified for a place in a Church of Ireland school. Our community was much clearer about who belonged within its ranks and who did not. But those times are past. People’s religious affiliations now are much looser; consumerism imbues people with a sense that they have a right to pick and choose; post-modernism tells them that there are no absolutes and that it’s easy to slip in and out of beliefs. Consumerism makes Church of Ireland schools the choice for many upwardly mobile people; post-modernism sits easily with the rather vague nature of Anglican beliefs and practice; and so our schools are heavily oversubscribed.

The first criterion for admission is that the child be a member of the Church of Ireland, but no-one has defined exactly what that term means. What is clear is that there are parents who will do whatever is necessary to satisfy the entrance criteria. If there is a demand that the child be baptized in the Church of Ireland, then they will be there at the font. If the demand is that they attend church, then they will be there for monthly family service. If the demand is that they be active members of the parish, then they will be there signing up for things.

What does all this achieve?

The church is not strengthened by these roleplay games. As soon as people have got what they want, they frequently disappear, and sometimes are none too polite in making clear that they want nothing more to do with the church.  More seriously, what has running schools for groups of people, well able to do things for themselves, got to do with following Jesus of Nazareth?

There is no prospect that the church is likely to relinquish its power and influence in education, any more than our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will do so, but let’s not pretend that what we are doing is particularly Christian, or even particularly religious.  Anyone who wants the church to be more than something more than nominally Christian, something more than just a sociological phenomenon, needs to ask similar questions to Bock about the church’s place in schools.

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