Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

In this week’s church service, we commissioned our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers for the year ahead. This week, schools are officially starting back after a somewhat unusual summer vacation. The new academic year will begin, although, in the Vicarage, it doesn't feel as though the old one ever ended. I imagine it has been like that for many parents. As the new school year begins, however, no matter what disagreements we may have, one thing I think that we can all agree on is the importance of education.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously said in a speech in 1996 that his three highest priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’. It was a memorable, if somewhat meaningless, sound bite, but it was one that he could utter without too much fear of being contradicted. Education is universally seen as the key to prosperity and success both for children individually and for society as a whole.

It is this universal recognition of the importance of education that has made it such a focus of political attention. Here in Hong Kong, the National Security Law has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of National Education. Schools are under instruction to teach their students about what it means for Hong Kong to be a part of China and to give greater emphasis in the curriculum to Chinese history and culture.

Whatever we may think of this, the Central Government is only recognising what philosophers first said long ago. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher in the 4th century BC, said, ‘Give me a child until 7 and I will show you the man’. As is well-known, the Jesuits also said something similar.

There are those who think that education should be exclusively about children being taught the academic subjects of the curriculum, this and nothing else. The reality is that education never has been just about academic learning and, what is more, it never can be. Educationalists speak of the ‘hidden curriculum’. As well as the formal subjects that all schools say they teach, they also teach beliefs, values, and attitudes, whether they intend to or not.

Some schools are entirely upfront about this. They make it part of their mission to impart more than academic learning and they give thought and attention to what they are trying to achieve. Others don't make much of what they teach outside of the formal curriculum, deliberately or otherwise, but they do it, nevertheless. What the Central Government realises is something that political and religious groups have always realised, namely, that what you teach a child, intentionally or unintentionally, will inevitably affect the person they become and how they think as an adult.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of children being taught politics or religion in school. But children do need to learn beliefs, values, and attitudes, and these have to come from somewhere. The question is not whether children are taught at school what to believe and how to behave, but what they are taught about both.

What, then, should be our attitude as followers of Christ and as a church to what and how our children are taught? Frankly, as a church, we have rather shot ourselves in the foot over this. We are very sensitive in the church to the accusation that we are indoctrinating children by our involvement in schools. Consequently, we do what we can to show that we are not like some of the religious cults we read about, and we go out of our way not to force anyone to believe anything.

We think that it is OK to teach children Bible stories in special Scripture lessons, and we don't think that anyone will complain if we tell children that they should be nice to people. After all, isn't that what all good people believe anyway, whether they are religious or not? However, we go very easy on God and on what we believe, so that we will not be accused of being bigoted and dogmatic or of trying to brainwash children.

The result is that church schools are often little different to their secular counterparts. Certainly, the academic curriculum in most church schools is the same as that in their secular equivalents. Children are taught the same things in the same way by teachers trained in the same places. The main contribution of the church lies in providing people to serve on school management committees.

I am not, as a school manager myself, suggesting that this is unimportant, but, again, what we do as church managers is often not all that different to what non-church managers do.

This is not the time or place to talk about what a church school should be doing or about the way it should be doing it, although it is a temptation I'm having to work hard to resist! I would just say, however, that while we may be determined, as the church, to be seen to be impartial and not to be using schools as places to spread our faith, others are not so shy about using them to spread theirs. While secular society may not like religious dogma being taught in schools, it is not so reticent about secular beliefs, values, and attitudes being taught in them. And the teaching of secular beliefs, values, and attitudes in schools goes a lot further than simply encouraging children to be nice.

At the moment, many people in Hong Kong are worried about the effect the introduction of National Education will have. I have to say that there is a lot more about what our children are being taught for parents to worry over than National Education and their children learning about China and Chinese history and culture.

In Hong Kong, we remain heavily influenced by and dependent on western ideas about education. Many schools go so far as to boast that they are following a British or American curriculum. Certainly, in teacher training, many of the ideas and literature upon which teacher training is based come from western universities and faculties of education. What I don't think many people realise is the extent to which the ideas coming from these institutions, and which are finding their way into what is taught in school, are not only not sympathetic to faith in Christ but, I would argue, diametrically opposed to it. Not only is talk of God frowned upon, there is often open hostility to very idea of God. Indeed, many would see education as being a tool for liberating people from what they see as superstitious and harmful beliefs.

Many of those who value a western style of education are simply unaware of what western education has become. A recent appointment at Harvard University serves as a parable for what is happening in western education in general.

Harvard University was founded by the Puritans in 1636. It was named after Pastor John Howard who endowed it. Its original purpose was for the education and training of the clergy. For some 70 years, all its Presidents were pastors. In 1692, it adopted the motto, ‘Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae’, which translated from Latin means, ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ This became simply, ‘Truth’; Harvard’s motto today.

Harvard has some 40 chaplains responsible for the spiritual care of its students. They are drawn from a variety of religious traditions. In 1974, a humanist and atheist chaplain was appointed for those who wanted to be spiritual without believing in God. Last week, the present humanist and atheist chaplain, Greg Epstein, was appointed the Chief Chaplain. He is the author of a book entitled, ‘Good without God’. His appointment was endorsed by all the chaplains.

Who the chaplains choose as their Chief Chaplain is, of course, up to them, but the story of Harvard serves as a parable about western society in general. What originally began out of faith in God, first became secular, and has now become its opposite.

The chaplains may all have been agreed on the appointment of an atheist as their Chief Chaplain, but they don’t all agree about God or even about whether there is a God. So, presumably, in making this appointment, they don’t think belief in God is all that important for those they care for. God, it seems, has become an optional extra even for those responsible for people’s spiritual well-being.

This is one reason why many in the West itself are now taking their children out of state schools and are teaching them at home themselves. Some 11% of children in the United States are now being homeschooled. We can expect there to be a backlash against this from those who are ideologically opposed to religious ideas and to giving parents the freedom to decide how their children are brought up. Indeed, a Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, has called for an outright ban on homeschooling in the United States.

One thing many activists who are not religious can't stand is being denied the opportunity to teach their own ideology and beliefs to your child. They not only see the problem as being that children are being taught their parents’ beliefs, but that they are being denied the opportunity to teach the children theirs.

Regardless of what we think about homeschooling and parental rights in the matter, there is not that much that we can do about it here in Hong Kong. Homeschooling in Hong Kong is effectively not allowed, and the system is not going to change any time soon.

This makes what we're doing in Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo so important. It’s just a given that children are not going to be told, in school, the whole truth about the world and how it came into being. They are not, in school, going to be introduced to faith in Christ. And they are not, in school, going to be taught in any depth about what it means to live for Christ. If we leave educating our children to the educationalists, our children will be deprived of what is most important in their education.

In announcing our service this week on Facebook, I posted a picture of a child with the caption: ‘If we don't teach our children to follow Christ, the world will teach them not to’. Many parents, however, often for the best of motives, will sometimes question whether it is right to teach our children to follow Christ. They ask, ‘But shouldn't I leave it for my child to decide for themself and wait until they are old enough to make their own decision?’ I don't doubt the sincerity of many who take this attitude, but just think about it for a moment.

As a parent, you decide where your child is born, grows up, and goes to school. You decide what food they eat, what clothes they wear, and even who their friends are. Every important decision affecting your child’s life and upbringing is taken by you. Why is your child’s faith so unimportant that you feel it is OK to leave it out? Is it because we ourselves have believed the lie that faith in Christ is not really that important? Is this the reason we allow other things to come before sending them to church on a Sunday?

The baptism service has these words in it:

‘Children who are too young to profess the Christian faith are baptized on the understanding that they are brought up as Christians within the family of the Church. As they grow up, they need the help and encouragement of that family, so that they learn to be faithful in public worship and private prayer, to live by trust in God, and come to confirmation.’

There will come a time when your child will indeed have to decide for themselves. The time will come when they will get the chance, formally or informally, to confirm their faith. But we need to give them exposure to that faith now, as they are growing up, so that they at least have the opportunity to confirm it - or not, if that is their choice - when they are older.

If we don’t give them this exposure, then, when the time comes, there will be nothing for them to confirm. Make no mistake, the number of young people leaving school describing themselves as ‘nones’, that is, as having no religious affiliation of any kind, is high and growing all the time.

Faith in Christ is not an optional extra for those who have come to know him. Jesus spoke about the wise and foolish men and how they built their houses (Matthew 7:24-27). One built it on the sand, and, when storms came, it fell down. The wise man built his house on the rock, and it stood fast. Jesus said that those who were wise built their life on his teaching. As those entrusted with the education and upbringing of children, we should want to give them the opportunity to build their lives on the Lord Jesus Christ and on his teaching.

What, then, we are committed ourselves to in our work with children is something that will have long lasting consequences for our children. Faith in Christ is not just about our children's life here and now in this world, but also about their life hereafter in the world to come. Here and now, they will only be properly educated if they learn about the God who made them and who cares for them. They will only be able to live happy and fulfilled lives if they grow up knowing the One who gave them life. They will only have lives that make a difference and are of benefit to others if they are taught the values and attitudes they need for them to make a difference and to be of benefit to others.

St Ambrose, in the fourth century, said:

‘When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.’ (Explanation on Psalm 36, 65-66: CSEL, 123-125)

Faith in Christ is not a separate subject that can be included or left out of our children’s education at will. It can’t be confined to an occasional Scripture lesson or a weekly religious assembly. Faith in Christ needs to be central to everything they learn and an essential part of their education.

The responsibility for ensuring that they get this education lies, not with the school, but with their family: both their biological family and their spiritual family. As the family of God, we have a God-given responsibility to support our families as they raise their children and a God-given responsibility to children as members of our family the church.

Our work with children is a fundamental and vital part of what we do as a church, and it makes what we are entrusting our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers to do, so important. It is no good leaving it until the children are older and hoping it will all turn out alright. By the time they are older, it may be too late.

Yes, we want our children to decide for themselves to follow Christ and to confirm their faith in him when the time comes, but they need to be told and taught about that faith, and they deserve to be given the chance to grow up knowing Christ for themselves. Jesus told his disciples off for turning away children. He took the children in his arms and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). What we are attempting to do at Christ Church is to follow our Lord’s example. Our children are not the church of tomorrow; they are very much a part of our church today.

And so today, let us commit ourselves to educating our children and bringing them up in the faith of Christ to know Christ, so that they can decide to follow Christ and, we hope and pray, one day to confirm for themselves their faith in him.


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