I have been thinking from time to time about the sermon preached by the Bishop of Oxford in the chapel of Manchester Harris College on the Sunday of the Farmington Millenium Conference. I was very moved by the sermon and found myself making detailed notes. It had been a long time since I had heard someone describe so accurately the dilemma I have felt as a Christian teacher of RE ever since I began, as a more than usually inexperienced teacher (I did not have the benefit of a PGCE training) in the September of 1973. It was also strange because on the way to chapel I had been discussing with Jane Brooke the fact that one of the best accounts of a lesson I had heard in the seminars had been the one that had been the most ‘confessional’. This lesson had not used distancing language like ‘Christians believe’ or the other devices we use to make it clear that no truth is being conveyed. Indeed it had seemed to make all sorts of assumptions about the truth of the Christian story and the appropriateness of responding to it in the here and now.
Let me remind you of what the Bishop said. He spoke of a tension that may not be resolved, which derives from a conflict between the personal faith of a Christian teacher and her position as a professional teacher. On the face of it this tension may seem unbearable. For Christians ‘faith is our very lifeblood…How can we not want people to know that which makes all the difference? which sustains us through all the ups and downs of life? which makes for an enduring peace and happiness?’ But against this must be put the professional standards to which a teacher is also committed. Such standards, he suggested, mean that personal faith must be ‘battened down below deck in the classroom’. He put it like this: ‘I take it that RE teachers are precluded by their professional standards from so preaching Christ that pupils are converted to him.’ There remains however, Bishop Harries said, a way of living creatively with this tension. Because the divine wisdom is present in all knowledge honestly and truly conveyed, we will through our teaching be enabling pupils to participate in the Wisdom that is present through natural grace. Because our teaching is related to the spiritual dimension of life we bear witness to this reality. The Christian teacher may so live in the light of the judgement of Christ that a way is opened up for his pupils to see Christ who is ‘shown forth’ since the ‘signs of his presence are there’. And because Wisdom is also the Holy Spirit and the Spirit alones communicates spiritual truth, the Spirit within us may speak to the Spirit within those whom we teach. The Bishop admitted that ‘the Christ who is present in our teaching…may for the most part be a hidden Christ’ but that this itself could bear witness to the God who chose not to be a bully or a tyrant, but rather a ‘bottomless encouragement to our faltering and frightened being’.
The Bishop’s words raise several important issues. I am interested here to ask what it might mean in practice to teach the Christian faith observing the professional standards that the Bishop has in mind. Although he speaks of the Christ in our teaching being hidden, he presumably expects us say something about Him. What are these professional standards? I am not aware of any that are written down that we are required to observe as teachers of religious education. This in itself does not mean that there are none, nor that we should not observe them, but it is perhaps worth noting. The Bishop assumes that these professional standards require our own faith to be kept ‘out of the frame’, as far as possible not affecting what we teach or how we teach. We may not tell of the faith which offers peace and happiness lest we find ourselves preaching and our pupils taking up the faith. This suggests that personal faith itself is a problem that the teacher has to manage, rather like an incalcitrant child that has to be constantly reined in. It would certainly seem to make life easier for the teacher who is not possessed of faith. More seriously it seems to suggest that Christian faith itself is a problem which must not be given too favourable a presentation lest others adopt it too.
We may agree that it is not right to preach in the classroom. We are licensed to teach not to preach, but it may not be so easy to distinguish between the two activities. Concern with this issue is not new. In 1962 Harold Loukes, editor of the journal Learning for Living (the predecessor of the British Journal of Religious Education) said that although the teacher could not preach, there were surely some things that had to be insisted on and taught with passion, in particular the value of persons. He expressed it this way: ‘A teacher after all is a person teaching; and though he may not teach in school what he preaches out of school, the person-teaching is the same as the person-preaching. A person cannot teach true science in school and false science out of school….the affirmation of humanity among the young, and the denial of humanity among adults. If no man is an island, then no man is two islands.’ This would imply that when it comes to teaching about the Christian faith, there is likely to be a great deal in common between the two activities. If we may not preach so that pupils are converted to Christ may we perhaps
so teach that pupils are converted to Him? And if not, does this mean that we must so teach Christ that pupils are not converted to Him? And how could we actually make sure that pupils were not attracted to follow Him? It would be possible to tell pupils that Jesus was a self-appointed Messiah or a false prophet, to point to the failures of the Church through the ages and ignore her influence for good, to give a telling Marxist critique, or just give a few boring lessons. But it would be difficult to argue that any of these approaches is required by professional standards. Pupils might very well wonder why we are bothering to take up their time with such an unimportant and discredited topic.
It is often assumed that the professional RE teacher must adopt a distanced approach in the classroom by means of using language such as ‘Christians believe’, ‘in the view of some believers’ etc. The problem with such language is that it seems to put the matter out of the reach and concern of the learners, the children for whom the lesson is being provided. It is not something that we, in the here and now, need to take seriously, it is something that others do and which we may not enquire too closely of since the teacher’s brief seems to prevent her saying very much. But is this simply another device for making sure that we do not so teach that pupils are moved to take up the faith? And it raises the question why are we teaching a religion, if at the same time, we must take care not to encourage pupils to follow it?
It is reasonable to assume that teaching is given to pupils because what we have to teach is of importance and of value. The decision to impart knowledge of Christian faith to pupils in school carries with it the assumption that the faith is worth learning about and indeed, learning. A professional approach would seem to entail at least this. In other subjects it is normally considered to be a mark of good teaching when a pupil is inspired to take up a career because of the teaching given in school, say in music or art. Would it be so great a problem if a pupil, as a result of gifted teaching in RE lessons, wished to follow Christ? At the very least a teacher may be expected to give a positive picture of Christ in her teaching. Professor Edward Hulmes has argued that far from faith having to be battened down in the classroom, a teacher’s faith is a primary resource. Professor Basil Mitchell has argued consistently for a period of thirty years in many publications that it is the task of the RE teacher to introduce pupils to the Christian faith on the basis that it is true and worthy of their serious consideration. So there is professorial endorsement at least for giving a positive picture of Christian faith in our schools.
What did the Bishop have to say about how to teach the Christian faith in our classrooms? He said that the task of the teacher is to convey knowledge: ‘knowledge, honestly taught can become transparent to Wisdom’. The Bishop referred to an essay by Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Wales, which he understood to mean that the Christian teacher must not proclaim, but rather show forth the presence of Christ in his teaching. This may aid us to adopt an attitude of humility and vulnerability (not always the right attitude in the classroom!) but it does not give us much help in knowing how practically to teach Christian faith in the classroom. I looked up the essay by Rowan Williams and discovered that he seemed to be saying quite the opposite. The essay, entitled ‘Beginning with the Incarnation’ may be read as a meditation on what it might mean to convey knowledge of the Christian Gospel and is therefore directly relevant to what we are trying to do in school. Williams is concerned with the role of dogma and truthful presentation. It is wrong, he writes, to tell the story of Christ’s life, death and rising without at the same time offering the discovery that ‘the proclamation of Jesus invites into active commitment to a concrete community in which liberation from the dominance of violence and denial is the mainspring of life and hope’. In other words there must be telling of the whole story and the whole story includes an encounter and the invitation to commitment. There is ‘the need to preserve the possibility of this kind of encounter with the truth-telling Christ that stands at the source of the Church’s identity’. If this is so, then it means that a teacher who attempts to teach Christianity in the classroom must at the same time encourage encounter with what it is that the Gospel proclaims. Indeed this is what an honest telling of the story would require of us.
It is wrong for a teacher to put pressure on pupils to commit themselves to the Christian faith in the classroom. It could be argued that it is wrong to do this in Church or anywhere else. This is because such decisions are a deeply personal matter and children need time and space to come to such a decision. But equally it is wrong, as teachers, to close down the possibility of our pupils seriously engaging with the claims of Christ. That is, however to raise the prior question as to whether it is right to engage in the teaching of Christianity in the classroom at all. If it is decided that it is, then we must accept the risk that an encounter with the living Christ may well be on the cards. Our professional standards do not require us to circumvent such an encounter. This is a very great challenge for the Christian RE teacher and makes it all the more important that we take seriously the Bishop’s call to live our own lives under the judgement of Christ.
August 11th 2000.
 Learning for Living, vol 2 no 2, November 1962. p.4.
 Edward Hulmes, Commitment and Neutrality in Religious Education, Geoffrey Chapman, 1979.
 Basil Mitchell, Heirs and Rebels, The Bloxham Project, 1982. See also his chapter in Faith for the Future, The National Society, 1986, chapter 4 ‘Being Religiously Educated’. His most recent contribution may be found in his book Faith and Criticism, Clarendon, 1992, see particularly pages 131-170. Basil Mitchell is the author of the Appendix to the Durham Report entitled ‘Indoctrination’.
 Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, chapter 6, Blackwell, 2000.