Visiting a beautiful Buckinghamshire village recently I was charmed to see an ancient country church with a tiny, thatched infant’s school attached. I pictured the delight of small children going into such a place which looked like an illustration from a book of fairy stories from my own childhood.
Work by these children lined the walls of the porch and the nave, bright illustrations, big cut out letters and messages in childish writing scrawled on pink and yellow post-it notes. But there any resemblance to my own time at a small, local C of E church school ended. Among the notes and brightly coloured pictures there was no mention of the Christian religion whatever. All the children’s work referred to what are now called, ‘Personal Skills,’ in particular, ‘Assertiveness.’
Many adults pay good money to go on courses to learn how to stand up for themselves against bullying parents, friends, colleagues and bosses. Our secular world is increasingly full of bullies it seems, but it seemed that these village children had undergone a full educational course, almost a theology of self assertiveness. There was no simple, ‘Love Thy Neighbour,’ or even ‘Be Kind to Other People,’ the little bits of paper were all about personal fulfilment through dealing with difficult situations and how to achieve your own ends without getting angry.
That was just the porch. Inside the church the messages were exactly the same, but laced with images of adults with the wise things they were reported to have said beneath. Some of their sayings were of doubtful attribution:
‘Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, then, surprise, surprise, you are doing the impossible.’
Apparently a saying which dropped from the lips of Mahatma Ghandi. Possibly when he was passing through New Jersey and composing a self-help book. There were a lot of quotes from hairy old men pinned up under the stained glass windows. A surprise, considering how unpopular elderly men are now with educationalists and social reformers. There were also messages about ‘Mindfulness,’ the new grand cult of Buddhism ‘lite’ for those aspiring to secular happiness.
Last June the Dalai Llama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, called for a more ‘holistic education’ from kindergarten to university, which ‘should bring a sense of care’ and help ‘promote human love.’ ‘Everyone has the right to achieve a happy life,’ he told hundreds gathered at Glastonbury Festival. He is now in the UK trying to teach people how to, ‘learn the art of happiness.’
None of the people quoted by the Anglican school children were famous saints, theologians, missionaries or even mildly religious Christians. Christianity of course is difficult in education these days as it has never been about achieving personal, immediate happiness. Fulfilment as something to pursue as an individual is derived from 18th century thinking about the natural rights of man. The Christian idea of self-sacrifice and obedience to the will of God has been largely junked in favour of this secular idea of individual well being.
Added to this, there is the issue of ‘community values,’ and ‘cultural sensitivities.’ No doubt the teachers from the local school and the local vicar would say that social and religious cohesion cannot be assumed, even among the 78 pupils at this rural school. But still it came as a surprise to see those old church walls carrying no obvious sign of the Christian faith, no sign of wisdom taken from the Bible, or even of the simple Bible stories we once knew as children.
‘Parents no longer want to impose any beliefs onto their children,’ a grandmother told me recently. Perhaps that is a good thing, less painful than being dragged to church every Sunday. But looking at the evidence of how we now live, one has to ask what British children have gained from the rejection of their Anglican Christian culture. Are they really happier now than when I attended mixed-infants classes and Sunday School in the 1960s?
We live in an age where children spend their spare time sexting and according to the NSPCC, sexually abusing other children. We are now all too familiar with the term ‘cutting,’ the problem of bullying, gang culture and increasing teenage abortion, with a quarter of girls who have a termination going back for more.
Recognising that something might be going wrong, and with a education flagging and failing in many places, there is now a desperation, which could be seen on those ancient church walls, to brain-wash children into behaving correctly, at least in school. Learning assertiveness and picking up second hand wisdom from secular sages is all about supporting personal success, to help children gain academic achievement. None of the messages I saw had anything to do with developing a personal morality, let alone fearing death and judgement.
We are into an age of ‘behaviour for learning,’ not for growing up as moral people. Denying the original faith of this country, once responsible for building the church and the school, and the failure to offer a moral purpose or an alternative to secularism leaves a yawning vacuum in many children. In the cities they fill it with sex, gang culture and in some cases religious extremism.
Of course how the Church of England’s dereliction of duty will affect our society and culture in the future we cannot know, only guess. Like the effect of the French Revolution it’s too soon to tell, as Chou En Lai once put it, or it might have been Gandhi.