Spring 2018: Pass Go and Collect £200

January 2018 and the start of another lap around the seasonal calendar. Our time of waiting and hope during 2017 advent has past. We have once again celebrated the promised arrival of Christ circa 2000 years ago.

And yet; as we start the new year we have not merely rotated like the hub of a wheel. The whole vehicle has moved forward and we are in a different place entirely. In the world of education, we often refer to the spiral curriculum, gradual rotation and revisiting with much needed change, growth and development with each loop. However, there can be comfort remaining with the familiar and resistance to change is a norm. Most school leaders will know the killer call from the weary, “we’ve tried this before, it didn’t work.”

Learning from the past is vital to understand our present part in God’s plan. As we annually relive the life of Jesus in our festivals we remember and learn from our heritage. Advent is the celebration of the arrival and coming of God as man. Jesus did arrive and this changed everything. In the book, “How God became King” Tom Wright asserts that God’s kingdom can be, “on Earth as it is in Heaven” -here and now.

Earth and Heaven may not yet be fully united and for now we await the second advent, which like our spiral curriculum, overlaps the first. As Christians, we still hope and pray for the promised second arrival and coming of Christ when all things will be put right, completely and for ever.

I always give thanks to my God for you because of the grace he has given you through Christ Jesus. For in union with Christ you have become rich in all things, including all speech and all knowledge. The message about Christ has become so firmly established in you that you have not failed to receive a single blessing, as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be faultless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 1: 4-8

We are called to remain rooted in Christ, learning from the past and enjoying the many blessings of the present. But the present is not all we have. We work to a glorious future. “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:28

Summer 2017: Go Slow

When did you last feel truly alive? A moment inspired by a beautiful vista? Catching the eye of a loved one during family time? A tearful moment of empathy? Too often such moments are like flowers between the paving stones. Moments of awareness often missed whilst running the autopilot of life’s doing mode. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

We don’t talk about soul very much. It’s a bit too ethereal. But recent experiences have taught me that autopilot, whilst often efficient, is not always the best tool for an enriched soulful life. The word soul first appears in Genesis 2v8: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In other translations, the word soul is translated being. We were created human beings, not human doings. God created us to be so much more than the job we are paid to complete.

In doing mode we often draw on the inadequacies of our past to resolve problems of the future. We continually play over in our minds hypothetical solutions to problems that may never be. There is nothing wrong in planning but this time of rethinking past and planning the future can prevent us from truly living in the present and thriving in the moment we have here and now. A slower day never arrives – unless we actively control it. We all have thoughts, but do we take time to become aware of where our thinking has taken us? Ever asked yourself “how did I get here?” either metaphorically or, when driving, quite literally. In the story of the lost son there is a beautiful line where the son becomes self-aware. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (Luke 15:17) His selfish hedonistic lifestyle had led him to a point of despair and only then does he think of his father. He assumes the worst, that he is to become a slave in his father’s house, but forgot who he truly was in the eyes of his father.

We strive for church schools that are distinctively Christian. We have a vision, “To offer our children and young people life in all of its fullness,” based on John 10:10. But how can we bring the best of ourselves to the life that we lead and the roles we inhabit unless we first seek time to nourish our souls? It may seem counter intuitive but we need to be selfish and go slower to achieve and discover more. It is time to be selfish for ourselves, for our roles, for our staff and especially for our pupils. To rediscover and share a love for life. To achieve this, we need to purposefully prioritise time to live connected to ourselves our colleagues, our friends and our family. Like the lost son, we may also remember who we are, not in our own strength, but in the eyes of God our father.

Autumn 2017: Matters of the Heart

I have spoken to numerous people since the summer break and many have commented on the holiday being a time of rest but also of “grounding” and opportunity to re-establish priorities. In the intense public scrutiny of the jobs that we do it can be so easy to lose sight of what is important. Engrossed in a manmade task-driven agenda, I can easily lose sight of what really matters and fail to see the wood for the trees.

I attend a house group Bible study and so often we have concluded that the heart behind what we do really matters to God. (See Genesis 4) How we live our lives can be an act of worship. A response to God’s grace reflected in how we adore and ascribe greatness to Him. I am reminded again of God’s priorities when anointing a King: But the Lord said to Samuel, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1Sam 16v7)

The word heart is often used to describe a spiritual response in both the old and new testament. Even God is described as having a troubled heart in Genesis 6:6. In the new testament the word heart (Greek Kardia) is repeatedly used by Jesus. When asked about the greatest commandment Jesus, referring to Deuteronomy, said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus also included a second commandment that is like it. To “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

As we love God, we are called into service of our neighbour; deeply Christian serving the common good. God does not want meaningless worship he wants social justice. “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego- music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice— oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message)

I believe our call to serve to the common good is vital. Church schools are not faith schools for the faithful but church schools for the community. This year the Diocesan Board of Education will be focussing on how we can further develop our service to the community. An introductory booklet has been dispatched with this newsletter. Please do take time to find out how you can embrace this diocesan wide priority.

Spring 2017: Love One Another

I have a confession to make. But first, I want to take the opportunity to touch base with you offline, in order to square the circle and run something up the flagpole in this new term whilst you may s;ll have enough bandwidth to process. That way we can get all our ducks in a row and pick the low hanging fruit. With this helicopter view we can look outside of the box (and while we are at it, under the bonnet) put a record on and see who dances before taking the strategic staircase developed from this idea shower. Is that OK? If not, then at the end of the day we can circle back and pick someone’s brain because it is what it is! All clear?

And now the confession. I was talking to a wonderful and hardworking female member of our team (no not Alison, this ;me) and at the end of the call I found I had finished with the words, Love you, bye! The call was closed before I had even given a thought to what I had said. This was a very unprofessional thing to say to a colleague who might easily and rightly have been offended. I started to worry! I realised how oHen I conclude calls to family members in this way. Indeed, upon reflec;on I realised how much of my dialogue has become punctuated with email signature equivalents; pre-­‐planned phraseology automa;cally inserted and generally effec;vely filtered as thoughtless and oHen worthless. It is all too easy to slip into jargon, including meaningless jargon from the workplace.

As I tried to ponder a way out of my pickle, I realised how easily the word Love can be misinterpreted. The Bible uses a number of words which can be translated as Love. Phileō (Φιλἐω) brotherly, companion, Agapē (Ἀγάπη) out of the heart of God, Storgē (Στοργή) Out of nature like parent to child and Eros (Εροσ) as in eroAc Love. Such word precision might have got me out of my hole.

Language is important, I need to improve. Fortunately for me I have been forgiven by the person who, I discovered, hadn’t actually heard what I had said. Perhaps, my words had been automa;cally filtered or effec;vely translated in the context of something even more important.

A new commandment I give unto you, that you love [Agapaō] one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” (John 13: 34-­‐35)

What las;ng impression of Love will we leave with our pupils? Will it be what we have said in Collec;ve Worship? Perhaps, but las;ng results come when what we say of Love is lived out and modelled in Chris;an community. I believe this is even harder to get right. If what we say and what we do don’t match, then our words may be filtered out and lost as meaningless. In my experience, our words are understood in the context of our ac;ons. We teach love by showing love. This can be costly and selfless, but the Christ like thing to do.

Autumn 2016: God with us

Dad, that’s amazing, just look! And it was indeed amazing. The twilight view from the coastal cliff path at Burton Bradstock was breath-taking. The clear sky and glistening sea drew me out to the horizon and up to the shimmering stars and a feeling of being part of something so immeasurably awesome.

Sadly, as I turned to agree with my daughter she was in fact staring at her Smartphone playing Pokémon Go.

Do you remember the little yellow Pikachu and those cards that were all the craze in so many school playgrounds in 1988? Well they’re back and apparently my daughter had sensed the presence of one on our cliff walk, enticed it and added it to a virtual collection. Her excitement was shared by three of the four 16-21 year olds on the walk, who immediately started sharing stories of the Pidgeotto nabbed on the garden path. For those not “in the know” it’s a simple game and whilst I personally can’t see the point, millions of people are playing it worldwide. You walk around in the real world whilst staring at an augmented reality created by an app on your smartphone. Find a Krabby in a real world location and it will show up in the virtual world geographically overlaid onto the real world location. How could I live so unaware?I am reminded that the same could be said for the presence of God. How often do we operate totally unaware of the presence of God? I think we have much to learn about Christian distinctiveness and the presence of God from Moses:

The LORD replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. Then Moses said to him, If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people?” (Exodus 33:13-16)

Moses knew that Israel could have access to the best food and strongest army but without the presence of God, all would be worthless. For Moses, the presence of God was too precious to leave.

Time away from the routine of work has reminded me once again that what distinguishes us as Christians is an awareness that it is not about what we can do on our own, but about who we are with. This gives amazing reassurance if we stay in close relationship. I love the wisdom and teachings of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk and his teaching in, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” which has helped me to feel God’s presence in the world, even whilst undertaking the most mundane  of  activity,  as  well  as  when  observing  the  beauty of creation. As we pick up the frenzy of another autumn term let us travel toward Christmas remembering; Emmanuel -God with us.

Summer 2016: Light at the end of the Tunnel

Whilst travelling through a very long tunnel on a narrowboat the child of a colleague became scared due to the lack of light. As the end of the tunnel came into view my colleague took the opportunity to reassure her child by pointing to the pinprick of light. The child looked horrified. “But mummy, we are never going to get through that!”

I think we have all known that feeling of looking into the future and feeling that we are never going to navigate safely through all that lies ahead. For many of our schools the future is starting to feel particularly uncertain as financial pressures threaten to strangle small schools as we know them. Added to this is the fear of legislation pointing toward the unknown experience of an all academy future.

As a member of the Church of England I am used to hearing harbingers of doom. It seems to me that one approach to such messages is to carry on as we are and hope things change for the better, nervously looking around to see who will be the last one to leave and turn the lights out. Alternatively, if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, we can walk down the tunnel and light our own. No prizes for guessing which approach I favour.

I believe that hope for the Church of England lies in fact that we are the Church of God and that God, not man, is sovereign. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that now is the time for the whole church family to work together as a diocese and within clusters to seek new and creative ways of providing church schools for the pupils of Derby and Derbyshire. We are here for pupils and this should be our first and foremost concern. If what we want to provide is not viable, we need to reimagine and be even more creative in order to find alternatives that are. Such problem solving is perhaps best undertaken in clusters, because different groups of schools have many unique qualities to consider. To be clear, if we fail to do this, circumstances may well enforce the decisions of others upon us.

We can no longer cling on to models of school that have worked in the past and assume they will serve us well in future. We should never stop seeking the very best for the children we serve in relation to the context in which we are serving. Travelling through a tiny pinprick of light may seem impossible at the start, but as we journey in faith some of the impossible might just be possible and we owe it to our children to try.

Spring 2016: A Call to the Light

As a student I earned a crust as a motorbike instructor at weekends and factory worker during the holidays. The culture of “the lads” was quite eye opening. One winter morning I turned up at the factory and accidently reversed my bike exhaust into an old car. To be fair, the car was so full of damage and rust I was not sure I had actually done any new damage, the real harm had been done to my pride. And so it started, the self-justification for not doing the right thing. Honesty got the better of my dark side, so I left a note to the considerable disbelief of my colleagues. At the end of the day the car had gone. It was only then I found out my colleagues had removed my note and turned away a disgruntled owner who had knocked on the manager’s door. Should I have thanked them for their kindness?

This Christmas we have remembered the coming/advent of the Light of the World. Jesus, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) This Christian frame of darkness and light pervades much of our culture. Yes, I did see Star Wars.

The Dark Side of the Force is all about temptation; it is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” than the light, according to Yoda at least. It tempts our basic instincts and self-interests, “Give into your hate,” implores the Emperor testing the resolve of Luke Skywalker. In the latest iteration, “The Force Awakens” Ren prays before the symbolic mask of Darth Vader, “Forgive me, I feel it again. The call to the Light.”

Temptation often comes more subtly and fuzzily than experienced by Star Wars characters. But it’s never too late to find the Light, to find a better way forward. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) but even Darth Vader, as corrupt as he was, turned to the light in the end.

My post advent prayer; that we would walk with our Lord and differentiate light from darkness. “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Autumn 2015: Get Real

Get Real!

What does the word “Church” conjure in your mind? What response might you expect from a child or young person? You might not be surprised to hear words such as “boring or irrelevant” used with a frightening degree of regularity –particularly from many who have no recent or relevant contact with Church. Unfortunately much of the data that attempts to quantify the engagement of young people with Church is far from reassuring.

In the words of Matt Summerfield, author of ‘Don’t make History, Change the Future’, “How has the radical, risk embracing, world changing, danger-accepting Jesus ended up looking so tame and irrelevant?”

In Primary education we frequently use modelling as an important element of our teaching toolbox. I believe the Apostle Paul did the same. “Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)

I decided to check out a definition of “modelling” in a dictionary and read that the description for the noun “Model” is something along the lines of, “a representation, generally in miniature, made of clay, wax or plastic.” Unless you live in the virtual reality of Toy Story and its ilk, such representations may be a pale imitation of the real thing. This concerns me.

A vaccine works by intruding the immune system to something very similar to the real thing, but made safe. By learning how to attack the safe replica, the body becomes ready to attack the real thing. In the case of a vaccine this is good news, but in other instances it may not be. If I tell you that I met with Nicole Kidman in the summer, you may (or may not) be impressed. I have a photo with which to assert my conviction. If I add that this was taken at Madame Tussauds, you will know that I have not met with the real Nicole at all.

I am left wondering how effectively our lives, our churches and our church schools model the real Jesus to the next generation. In the context of all we have to achieve, our own fallibilities and individual circumstances, this is a considerable challenge, but one all ambassadors for Christ must face. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Summer 2015: Targeted Renewal

OFSTED have gone regional. That was a key message emanating from a March 2015 conference organised by OFSTED themselves and attended by invited so called “movers and shakers” of the East Midlands region. “So what?” you might well ask.

One difference is that Ofsted Inspectors and HMI will now work in regional teams and will be employed directly by OFSTED so that all inspectors will start to know one another quite well. At present Additional Inspectors often meet for the first time on day 1 of the inspection. A more important emphasis is that all inspectors will be instructed to have a clear focus on regional as well as national priorities. If you don’t know now what our regional priorities are, you need to read the ‘Ofsted Annual Report 2013/14 East Midlands’ or you may be in trouble.

Whilst it would be easy to see these priorities as just the latest fad to worry about, I believe this would be a mistake. I have never before been in a room with so many HMIs and have seldom seen so much passion and determination for “Targeted renewal.” Key indicators prioritised for improvement are: Children Looked (CLA), English as an Additional Language (EAL) and Free School Meals (FSM) The children experiencing significant underachievement within these groups need our help. Such targeted renewal should be in the DNA of every Church school.

“The Christian Church has, of course, been involved in providing schools for centuries, but the founding of the National Society marked a commitment to systematic provision across England and Wales. The original motivation was expressed in the full name of the Society, the National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor… The Church of England, along with other denominations, felt the moral and economic obligation to provide education for all, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. They responded to this sense of obligation a full 60 years before education was recognised as a responsibility of the Government in the 1870 Education Act.” (Chadwick Report 2012)

This notion of targeted support for the vulnerable helped to inform our DBE vision. In November 2014, I recorded: “Our team started with study and discussion of Luke 4: 14-30 often referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto subtitled by the NIV; ‘Jesus Rejected at Nazareth’. Jesus read from a scroll (Isiah 61:1) a section about renewal and freedom from the circumstances that trap individuals in poverty and slavery during the year of Jubilee. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’(Luke 4:18-19) For me this section should be subtitled ‘Spirit led, targeted, renewal.’”

Let us reclaim these OFSTED priorities as our own and seek new ways of working together so that all children can indeed live life in all of its fullness. (John 10:10)

February 2015 : Dealing with baggage.

Each year after Christmas I set myself up for a summer challenge. Last year it was the “Coast-to-Coast” and “Peak Punisher” cycle events and this year I will be “Flat out in the Fens.” The trouble is, I really enjoy my food in the cold period during winter and this usually results in the requirement to loose 15Kg (2st 5lb) of excess baggage that is slowing me down. Being the sad person that I am, I have weight loss graphs since 2007 that show an average weight loss of 0.8KG (1.7lb) per week in the period following January-April. A downward trend is not always a bad thing!

A train commuter once sat staring at a young man reading a bible with wide eyes and a growing expression of awe and wonder. He simply could not help himself. “Why are you reading that?” “Why?” replied the young man. “Because it is amazing. I have just read of miracles and how Moses has helped a lot of slaves escape from Egypt. He has parted a wall of water and got all of the people safely through.” “Oh you don’t want to believe all that,” replied the man discouragingly. “It was probably just a few tall reeds that got trampled down into 4 inches of water.” Undeterred the young man, clearly gripped by the story, read on and within moments was once again aghast by something he had read. Unable to hold back, the seasoned commuter intervened, “So what’s so amazing this time?” “Well,” replied the young man, “It seems the whole of the Egyptian army has just drowned in 4 inches of water.”

We all try to make sense of what we encounter with a whole lot of “baggage” and this can colour our perceptions and slow us down. On occasions we come across something so powerfully convincing that it challenges us to throw away the baggage that is no longer useful. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is an obvious example of a complete U-turn conversion experience. In a moment, Paul became aware that the God he thought he was serving was in fact the Lord he was persecuting. Lifestyle changes were needed.

I often think of learning as a series of mini revelations. I remember seeing my daughter as a toddler accidentally fall off the couch. Her face was grimaced waiting for the impact of the fall. Experience had quite rightly taught her that falling hurts and she was clearly prepared for the pain. Her learning was accurate, but incomplete. She landed on a soft bean bag and the look of surprise and delight was a transformation. She adapted her framework of understanding from something like “falling hurts” to “falling hurts, but falling on a bean bag is great fun and worth repeating!” As a result of her experience she now had a better, but still incomplete, view of the world.

Good teachers know that as we learn we can often develop “alternative frameworks” of understanding that may be both inaccurate and incomplete. A classic example might be “adding zero” when multiplying by ten. This may work as a paper trick in one context but confuses the term “addition” and falls apart in the context of decimals fractions. Many young children also assert that carrots cannot be plants because they are vegetables. In my view these alternative frameworks often result from trying to make sense of too much information without enough practical experience or a wide enough breadth or context. These alternative frameworks of understanding actually need to be understood and sensitively deconstructed before real progress can be made. It can take patience, skill and time for a teacher to get to the heart of this.

The word “Academy” has significant baggage and there is a perception (one I once shared) that parents do not like them and some parents are very clear that they don’t. But first-hand experience with our schools thus far does not support this as a simple uniform assumption. We have seen that parents often quite rightly approach a potential academy suggestion with some serious concern and a fear of the unknown. I would support this concern and would also not want to endorse some forms of academy structure. Nonetheless my, albeit limited, experience suggests that when parents have some specific information to compare with their current experience as part of a consultation process, they are able to make an informed judgement and the outcome can be very different.

Where governing bodies have chosen to consider academy status by joining the diocesan MAT (including two schools eligible for intervention) outcomes from those parents choosing to respond suggest that significantly more are “in favour” of conversion than “not in favour.” This has been replicated in all four schools where this has been the case thus far. As of February 2015 an average 57% of parents have been “in favour” whilst 13% have been “not in favour” of conversion. To be clear, this does not include the outcomes in one school where governors have been replaced by an Interim Executive Board and in this context the majority of parents choosing to respond are not in favour. The word academy may have negative connotations, but a revised alternative structure could bring improvement, or decline. It all depends on the starting point and the offer. Downward trends may be bad news in one context and good news in another. I suggest the same might be true of academies.

Like the man on the train it is good to be open to new ideas and learning and excited by what life may have to offer. Failure to at least consider and reflect, results in a failure to learn, develop and improve. I love the section in the Lion King when Simba tries to ignore his context and experience. The wise Rafiki hits him with a stick and it hurts. On the second occasion as the stick approaches, Simba dodges away – lesson learned. Of course due consideration might also confirm and strengthen an existing framework of understanding. In this instance we can move forward with what we know works well and continue with confidence.

Simba: “Looks like the winds are changing.”

Rafiki: “Ah, change is good.”

Simba: “Yeah, but it’s not easy. I know what I have to do, but…”

November 2014: I am somewhat suspicious of jargon.

(How we arrived at our vision)

I am somewhat suspicious of jargon. I recently overheard the phrase, “Can you re-circuit one of these modern computers?” It flowed from the patter of a confident sales assistant at a national PC retailer. Landing in the fertile vulnerability of the shopper it successfully secured the purchase of an extended warrantee. Now I have been building and programming computers, albeit on an amateur basis, since 1980. I’ve replaced motherboards and the odd power or data cable but never heard the term “re-circuit.”  Jargon can get politicians elected and money released by instilling false confidence though emotive manipulation. Just look at the latest progression from “World Wide Web” to “Web 2.0”, “Cloud Computing” and now, “The internet of things” phrases that enable the ignorant appear edgy and on message.

So it was with considerable scepticism that I began the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) some years ago. At the time it seemed to offer an unhealthy, disproportionate and overly theoretical focus on Mission Statements and Vision. Years later and I frequently find myself in need of a compass to point me in the right direction and inform decision making. In this context the right mission statement and a shared vision become invaluable.

The wider diocese of Derby recently reviewed its mission statement. The diocesan vision of “Christ’s presence in every community” is to honour and celebrate that Christ is present in every community, whether we see it or not and that we need to seek ways to identify where Christ is working and how we can join in. The Vision is that we are to be a growing, learning, healthy and outward facing diocese.

With this in mind the time had come to review the Derby Diocesan Board of Education (DDBE) vision. As part of the wider Diocese it was important that the DDBE contribute to diocesan wide vision. However, we wanted to focus on our particular contribution for children and young people. The changing role of the Board of Education (See A diocesan Board of education for the future) meant that we also needed to reflect our aspiration for high academic achievement within a distinctive and inclusive Christian context.

Our team started with study and discussion of Luke 4: 14-30 often referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto subtitle by the NIV; “Jesus Rejected at Nazareth”. Jesus read from a scroll (Isiah 61:1) a section about renewal through the year of jubilee. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”(Luke 4:18-19) For me this section should be subtitled “Spirit led, targeted, renewal.

Much could be said about being spirit led, and there was considerable discussion about appropriate targets for our work, but a consensus quickly emerged with significant contributions from all. What was amazing is that our emerging priorities seems to match the diocesan vision of a growing, learning, healthy and outward facing diocese. Those familiar with OFSTED reports might recognise the format of a clear “statement”, followed with a “by” (indicating potential action points) and the inclusion of “so that” indictors to provide evidence of impact and a focus on what this might look like. However, inspired by John 10:10, we think the simple mission statement; “To offer our children and young people life in all its fullness,” will become a memorable, simple and infinitely challenging aspiration. I would love to detail the significance of each of the statements in our fuller vision, but more importantly I hope that our actions will speak louder than words.

October 2014: A number of thoughts

logopiinfMy wife caught me staring into space when I woke up one morning and made the near fatal mistake of asking me what I was thinking. This was my reply.

“You know when I was a teenager I had special permission to leave the (we only had one) school computer switched on over the weekend to calculate PI to 4000 places? Well it has got me thinking about infinity again.”

Mathematicians will know that PI is the constant that defines the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and that it is a non-recurring and non-terminating decimal. In other words it goes on forever but unlike an after dinner bore, it does not repeat itself. Fascinating! Being an irrational number it cannot be expressed accurately as a common fraction so 22/7 is very much an approximate.

I have loved the notion of infinity for years and as a primary teacher facilitated this thinking with the children in my class. My favourite approach was to use a simple programing language called Logo (MSW Logo is free!) and encourage them to build up their knowledge to the point where they can use the Repeat command to draw regular polygons. Repeat 4 [Forward 100 Right 90] will produce a square with sides 100 units long. Repeat 8 [Forward 50 Right 45] will produce an octagon and so on. I once asked a child to draw a circle and they managed to produce, on screen, a very convincing circle. Better still they told me that, “a circle is like a regular polygon with a never ending number of really small equal sides and turns!” I think that does quite nicely for a ten year old. Moments like these make teaching great!

And what about the Champernowne constant. It’s simply a zero, decimal point and then all of the whole numbers to infinity – 0.12345678910111213141516171819etc. Like PI it is an irrational number that goes on forever. But this number contains within its string any other unique number you can imagine from your age to your telephone number, credit card number or bank balance. Amazing. To me it’s the numerical equivalent to the family of monkeys left with a keyboard for infinity to eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare. The Champernowne constant is also transcendental which in this context means it isn’t the route of any polynomial equation. Don’t you just love it when we start to share language often considered the reserve of theological debate?

For more information of infinity, “check out” Hlbert’s Hotel? – it’s quite a good way of explaining infinity. The page also links to another article about infinity which go on to talk about countable and uncountable infinities – some infinities are ‘bigger’ than others.

So can we grasp spiritual meaning from mathematics? Many biblical scholars describe 7 as the perfect number within the bible. From the 7 days of creation to the 7 seals of revelation, scripture is saturated with the number 7. Nonetheless, asked the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything and most of us will give the answer “42”. This was of course from Douglas Adams and his works of fiction including the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. However, I remember at school being told that a senior maths professor (Quadling) has been quoted as proving that e to the i pi equals minus one and adding, “therefore God exists!” Whether this is true and whether he was serious I have no idea, but there is something about mathematics that can inspire us to creatively reach beyond ourselves –the arts do not have a monopoly on this. [According to my sister in-law, an Oxbidge trained Mathematician, “whatever axiomatic system is chosen, it is not possible to prove all theorems within that system.”]

And yes –all of this was part of my answer to my longsuffering wife. However, I went on:

“You know I had that conversation with my Dad about the Tom Wright book? Well…”

Tom Wright is one of my favourite contemporary theologians and I have been sending copies of some of his books to my Dad because they make for great discussion. I am proud of my Dad – he worked in teacher training as a lecturer. He is not daft. But we both sometimes really struggle with Tom Wright theology which is part of the joy of engaging with his books. Dad also helps to train local preachers and had been discussing the content of the recent book I had sent, with a preacher he had been supporting. They too were finding some of the concepts hard to grasp. Even the Tom Wright book “Simply Jesus” demonstrates that understanding Jesus is far from simple – even tougher than the concept of infinity? Like a child in primary school –we can only begin to glimpse and understand the immeasurable infinity of God. – “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.” (Psalm 147:5) But should we expect to grasp God with our understanding? Should we even try to understand or should faith make understanding unnecessary? What, if anything, do you need to be able to understand to be a Christian?

In times of confusion I keep returning to the first and second commandment and this time noticed something I had overlooked:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mat 22:34-40)

The key Greek word translated by the NIV as “mind” is διάνοια meaning; deep thought, properly the faculty (mind or its disposition), by implication its exercise: – imagination, mind, understanding.

To me this suggests that we are expected to use our mind but also recognise our limits when trying to grasp something we are simply too small to comprehend. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He will not grow tired or weary and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28) More on this, including warning about taking our intelligence too seriously it is well worth re-reading in 1 Corinthians 18-31.

My use of mathematics on a day to day basis is actually quite basic – good job really. Nonetheless, I am aware that there are occasions when I need to go deeper in order to tackle new problems encountered along the way. This new learning can be inspirational. However, whilst it is great to know that PI is infinite, the common fraction of 22/7 is actually quite sufficient most of the time.

So what new learning has today brought? Well, I expect my wife will think twice before asking me what I am thinking!

September 2014: British Reserve

greatbrWThe renewal of my First Aid qualification has come and gone with yet another round of updates to learn. Every three years, current approaches are explained with an air of, it’s obvious really. Three years later another trainer will undermine these “obvious” approaches with equally fervent justification. For example, a few courses ago it was, “Check the pulse, you don’t want to give someone CPR if they have a pulse, you might damage their heart.” In the last few courses it has been reinforced that we no longer bother checking for a pulse directly at all.

To be fair, over the 27 years I have been renewing my First Aid qualification there have been fewer changes than consistencies in the content and I do expect to be taught an approach that is not only effective, safe and prompt but also informed by the latest research.

But this time it was the assessment regime that surprised me the most. No longer is there a day 3 (although it used to be a 4 day course) practical “exam” overseen by a visiting Doctor. This has been replaced with continuous assessment by the trainer. At its best this allows the trainer to check and assess a wider range of incidents –at its worst it is a test of very short term memory by somebody with a pecuniary interest in your success. Given that I attend training every three years because I fear I may have forgotten too much in the interim, I remain unconvinced that assessment of short term memory (testing often within minutes of the “training”) provides the rigour required for the long term.

My fellow course participants liked the new arrangements and argued that because it is almost impossible to fail, more people will get trained. I’m not sure that there is a 1:1 causal link here but… the more trained, the better, right? Well it seems it is not so clear cut. Apparently, in answer to a survey, the vast majority of people say that they would not be prepared to offer First Aid in an emergency. Ask the same question to those who have attended First Aid training and the percentage lifts to an abysmal 25%. As always, we were regaled with stories of incidents including one where 20 people had stood around while somebody died simply because nobody had opened their airway. It seems even in extreme circumstances, people are too well conditioned to risk involving themselves in the affairs of others. How very post-modern. How very sad.

Perhaps we are put off by the fear of making a mistake and getting into trouble. The course I attend provides insurance cover to encourage participants to actually use their skills if needed. It is interesting to note that, according to the trainer, there have been no successful prosecutions resulting from somebody trying to use their training in a real world context. It seems the fear used to rationalise our lethargy is unfounded. So strong is our resistance to involvement, we’d rather let somebody die.

Chatting to a “lost child” supervisor on a beach I was told similar stories. Would you take a lost child by the hand and lead them to safety? How might this be interpreted? The attendant at Weymouth claimed they average 70 lost children per day (up to 14 at the same time on a busy day) and that on one occasion a 6 year old managed to end up at a train station in London because everybody assumed he was the responsibility of somebody else.

I believe this lack of involvement is partly cultural. We are often told of far-away villages where communities take corporate responsibility for the upbringing of children. Far away they may be, but are they far-fetched? What of our commitments made to children and families during baptism services? What of the Church of England approach to the cure of souls? Is there any evidence that these promises are alive and well in our church? In our church schools? Research in schools suggests that Christian teachers are much more likely to hide their beliefs than teachers of other faiths and none. Why is this?

In this context the words of Jesus often referred to as The Great Commission, now seem very un-British and counter cultural. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 Are we really prepared to stand back as mere observers over spiritual life and death? “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:25.

It is no wonder that for many the great Commission has become the great Omission.