Resplendent in his clerical suit and gaiters, the bishop stood before the assembled children of the school and in deep episcopal voice, tuned by years of port and cigars, boomed out over the children’s heads.
“I will give sixpence to anyone who can tell me who I am?”
The hand of a little boy near the front was raised and a trembling voice said, “Please sir, you are God”.
The bishop look bemused, but managed a kindly smile.
“I’m not, young man, but here’s a shilling”.
The story comes to mind when confronted with school assemblies, or bishops, or both.
There was a primary school in a big Loyalist estate that was joy to visit. It had once been much larger, but with the passing of the years the age profile of the estate had been raised and the school was no more than a fraction of its former numbers.
“When you ask questions, some of them will raise their hand every time and every time they will answer ‘Jesus’. The logic is that sooner or later they will be right’, the principal smiled as he gave the warning. He was right, but it was still fun. The children sat on the floor in a crescent. It seemed sensible to sit on the floor, halfway between the two points of the crescent, to talk to them.
The assembly talks paid a dividend. Visiting houses in the estate where there were primary school aged children, there would be at least someone who was a friend. Assembly stories would be revisited; sometimes being turned on their head in the children’s retelling of them , but at least there was some communication, at least the church had a face for them.
Sitting on the floor changed the whole dynamic. It only worked in small schools, but there was much more interaction. At an integrated school, it became a learning experience as young people from very diverse backgrounds shared their thoughts. Sometimes comments were not always completely relevant; sometimes people simply wanted to share a piece of news; but being heard in itself is something important.
Suffering the weekly tribulation of trying to teach for an hour in a local primary school, there is a temptation to be nostalgic for past times. In a community where many have everything, where the clergyman would be one of the least sophisticated people, and where being working class leaves you on the outside, the days of sitting on the floor listening to children’s stories seem a very fond remembrance.