Thursday, 10 May 2012 15:07

We face challenges not persecution

It has become a commonplace comment that Christians in the UK are facing persecution from an overbearing state, a seemingly hostile judiciary and a metropolitan elite with friends in the media. A quick trawl of news sites shows that Ann Widdecombe believes that ‘Christianity in Britain is under severe persecution and it will get worse’; David Simpson MP says that ‘we don’t have to go to other countries to see persecution, we simply look to our own back door’. Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Lord Carey, says that in Britain ‘Christians are vilified by the state... Christians are being driven underground’.

Personally, I prefer the reasoned tones of the Archbishop of Westminster who said recently that ‘Christians are not persecuted in this country and should not pretend that they are’. Quite. Archbishop Nichols knows that our faith has faced real persecution in the past and what we face now are not persecutions but challenges. 

Nowhere are these challenges better illustrated than in the world of education. In England there are almost 2,200 Catholic schools educating over three-quarters of a million students, and the vast majority of these schools are in partnership with the state in one form or another. We can be really proud of what these schools are achieving: they are outperforming the national average in Key Stage 2 SATs by 5% and in GCSEs by 6%. Three out of four of these schools are judged by Ofsted to be outstanding or good, and at the same time they serve more deprived areas than other schools nationally. They are an embodiment of our mission to society, a service to the Common Good and they show what can be achieved when we work in partnership with the state.

But there are real challenges facing Catholic education. The structure of education in England is changing and rapidly so: half of all secondary schools are now either academies or are in the process of becoming so, an uncomfortable truth for many who have been accustomed to the certainties of the 1944 Education Act. The issue of how we to continue to serve the Common Good whilst coping with this fast changing environment is one that we cannot duck and, let’s be frank, it poses difficult questions for both schools and dioceses; in this context we also need to ensure that the next generation of Catholic school leaders is ready to step up to new responsibilities. The Government places an increasing emphasis on raising standards and it was, therefore, timely that the last Bishops’ Conference placed an expectation of high educational standards at the heart of our mission, reminding us of our duties in this regard in Canon Law (cf Can. 806 §2). Many local councils are now cutting back on subsidised transport to Catholic schools, shifting the burden of finding the cost from the authority on to hard-pressed parents (if you want tips on how to campaign against this locally have a look at this page on our website www.catholiceducation.org.uk). In Wales there are concerns over the future of Catholic sixth forms and the burdens placed on our dioceses by the Welsh Government’s school building programme. And in England we know that there is a danger that the place of Religious Education in the curriculum is being undermined as a consequence, perhaps unintended, of its exclusion from the English Baccalaureate.

But let’s be clear: these are not persecutions, they are challenges which we must meet. Let us keep a sense of perspective and remember that there are Christians abroad facing genuine persecutions. I understand the sense of embattlement that a sometimes hostile media engenders but Lord Carey really isn’t all that persecuted; he is, after all, a member of both the House of Lords and the Privy Council. We live in a country with a Christian Church as its established religion and where Christian prayers begin every sitting day in our Parliament. And in Catholic education we live not in fear of the state but in a successful partnership with it – a tenth of all schools are Catholic and, in total, around a third of all schools in England and Wales are of a Christian character.

And those challenges? Well, some of these will involve painstaking and detailed negotiations nationally and we’re doing just that. Some, like home to school transport, might be better resolved locally. Some others will need us to work in concert together. Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves let’s start winning some of these battles.

Greg Pope, Deputy Director of the Catholic Education Service

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