On the 22nd and 23rd February 2016 Anglican clergy together with Christian governors, legal advisers, educational consultants, experienced teachers, health advisers and church youth and student workers, met together in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne for 24 hours for the second of the modern Jesmond Conferences. Entitled Teaching for Commitment this was convened by the vicar of Jesmond, David Holloway, to respond to recent challenges from the Department for Education to the Christian Church and its historic educational provision and traditions.
An immediate presenting problem had been the Government's school inspection system. This was on two counts. On the one hand, there was a concern in the North East over Ofsted inspectors inappropriately questioning young children over sexual matters with, reportedly, homosexual sex too frequently on their agenda and with a child being questioned on its own without another adult present.
On the other hand, there were deep concerns nationally over the Government's proposals for inspecting "out of school education settings". This involves very serious matters of principle. If enforced, such inspection of Church youth activities would have transgressed the necessary boundary between Church and State and would be defying the fundamental British value and right of freedom of, and for, religion.
These two issues underlined the importance of taking counsel about fundamental issues regarding education. The intentions of the conference were, one, so that there might be a road map to a new educational concordat, which restores parental rights with regard to the education of their children, for the good both of children and the country, and, two, so that other necessary action might be taken in the light of the conference.
In preparation for the conference, members read background papers, entitled The litmus test for a free society; How should Christians educate their children; and Paris, Jihadism and the battle for hearts and minds. The conference dealt first with Fundamental Issues especially the fact of …
"… the parents … prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children"
(UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
… and the need for the school to support parents in the religious and moral education of their children that is given primarily in the family and home. To that end, action was seen to be needed as so many schools were ignoring the requirements of the 1988 Education Act, its religious clauses themselves being an endorsement of the British Christian educational tradition.
Also seen as important was the need for a clear Christian framework in the school. Many parents, and not just committed believers, are wanting their children to inherit such a framework or culture. For only when they are initiated into a definite primary faith culture have their children something from which rationally to compare, contrast and critique cultures in this confusing pluralistic world that is modern Britain. They then can make their own personal commitments. Census data plus experience suggest that most parents, even many of the "no religionists", would prefer that culture to be Christian rather than any other on offer, and certainly than a secular culture.
Then the conference considered Christian faith and Scientism and the historical course by which some of the conflicts over the Christian tradition and science had occurred, including those conflicts relating to human origins. It was suggested that issues relating to certain scientific assumptions, procedures and language, if not properly addressed, can undoubtedly result in an atheistic indoctrination of many children in our schools.
By contrast, and in reaction to any atheistic secularism, a reaction at the tertiary level was noted. Significant academics are asking fundamental questions about the purpose of education. Why, for example, have our colleges and universities given up on the meaning of life (to quote a recent book title). Allied to that concern is the fact that universities are enabling students to learn more and more about less and less. This has worrying long term implications if there are no unifying principles such as are supplied by the Christian faith. So these questions were asked: "Does this suggest we need not just more Christian schools but also Christian universities? But what would a Christian university look like in the UK?"
All that naturally led on to the subject of Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics and levels of serious sexual degeneracy experienced at college and university levels. It is hard to see this as a rational response. Others are now saying it has been socially constructed through, among other things, syllabuses, permissive legislation and the media. Also, it was said, a key factor or even the motor driving the sexual revolution, has been and is, the normalization of same-sex relationships; and the history of how this has been achieved reveals that a tiny minority (1.1 percent) of the population has caused a tectonic shift in Western sexual culture.
With the message heard that every sexual urge has a right to be fulfilled, the sexual flood gates have been opened, in schools as well as universities. In schools that was the result of the repeal in 2003 of the restraining 1988 Clause 28 that prohibited "the teaching … of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". However, as an important counter to the new and sad Western homosexual culture, the conference was reminded of some words of John Stott, a great pastor and theologian, who helpfully said:
"We are all human beings. That is to say, there is no such phenomenon as 'a homosexual'. There are only people, human persons, made in the image and likeness of God, yet fallen, with all the glory and the tragedy which that paradox implies, including sexual potential and sexual problems."
So, with such confusion, intellectual and sexual, what is the way forward in what some call a "multi-faith world"? The final discussion at the conference, entitled Multi-faithism and the future, sought to give some answers. It was seen that globally the modern world is not so much secularized, as pluralized. For except in the West most of the world is becoming more religious not less. But pluralization erodes traditional communities and de-institutionalizes them, leaving individuals isolated and with little social support. When marriage and the family are deinstitutionalized, socially damaging breakdown will occur and increase. That is why the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples was, and is, so dangerous and damaging. It has contributed to the further deinstitutionalizing and erosion of our sexual culture generally and marriage and the family particularly.
However, the negative consequences of such pluralism is leading world-wide to an advocacy of the "Old Paths" and faiths as they used to be and various forms of fundamentalisms. Not all of these are extremist, that is unless "old" is prejudicially a synonym for extreme. But some sadly are. These are not in the Christian tradition, however. In our pre-conference reading we were reminded of some words of the atheist, Richard Dawkins:
"There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse."
The conference was encouraged and challenged through two Bible expositions on Psalm 46 and Nehemiah 1 (and what follows). Conference members were encouraged to remember that they were not invulnerable, not indispensable, but also not insignificant; and so they needed to seize opportunities in difficult circumstances.
Jesmond Conference 2016 Resolutions
In the light of all the deliberations and discussions, the conference agreed the following that:
- in line with the United Nations declaration of Human Rights, the right of parental choice in education must be recovered in the UK.
- a clear primary faith culture in schools needs to be recovered, which, following census data, in the great majority of schools should be Christian.
- cases of clear discrimination against Christians in schools, Christian schools and proposed Christian schools must be addressed.
- the vicar of Jesmond should set up a working group that will consider the Jesmond Conference 2016 papers, addresses, group submissions and resolutions, take appropriate action and produce a report for the end of February 2017.