Why did we choose this theme about singing our stories?
Two weeks ago I visited our smallest school, St Michael’s in Christchurch. Last year it had 40 students, this year 80, so after years of struggles following the earthquakes, it has turned a corner.
My visit coincided with the Education Review Office’s, and Mark, one of the reviewers, told me a story he’d been told the day before by a parent. Her son, a young lad on the autism spectrum, came home from school one afternoon and said to his mother, “Sometimes I think that something bad might happen and you and dad might be dead. But it’s OK because St Michael’s would look after me.”
That’s a story that tells us what St Michael’s is, who it is. Stories can do that, as we all know. They can show the essence, the DNA, of an individual or a group. Over the next few days we’ll be hearing stories like that from schools and organisations and individuals – and we hope that through them we’ll gather a deeper sense of what our identity is as Anglican schools within the Christian church.
Stories show us who we are, but also shape who we are. I’ve heard John Bell, who’ll be taking us for a session very shortly, talking about how the stories we tell ourselves through song shape our faith, which in turn shapes who we are.
The Rabbi Sacks quote I’ve used on our information for this conference says, “We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”. Which naturally mean it’s important that we’re aware of what these stories are that we’re telling. Because sometimes we don’t recognise the stories we’re telling ourselves, in the same way that we can sometimes get to the end of a song without being able to remember any of the words. Sometimes we’re distracted. Sometimes the stories are so embedded in our DNA that they are just how things are, unquestioned and often unnoticed.
So that’s also what we’ll be doing over the next couple of days: thinking about the stories we’re telling already and checking up on how they fit with our Anglican identity. So to get us started on that task, here are two more stories to think about.
In Toowoomba, Australia, the Catholic schools have been running a programme of Christian Contemplation through every level of school, every day, for a number of years now. They found that the level of behaviour problems shrank over these years at the same time that academic results rose.
The Ministry of Education was so interested by this that they approached one of the secondary schools and asked if they could do a research project based in the school, to map the effect of prayer and meditation on behaviour and academic performance. The school said, “No.”
When asked by a bewildered ministry why not, they said, “We don’t do this because it improves our academic level. We do it because this is what Christians do.”
There’s an element of shock in that story for most of us.
It’s a story that starts off gliding smoothly down familiar paths of ways to success – and then suddenly something jagged catches and we’re jolted to a halt.
That happens at the point where the story is no longer the story of our common secular identity – the identity of roads to success - but of the unsettling, challenging, sometime uncomfortable identity of communities of faith – those communities that our schools get their name and their identity from.
So listen out over these two days for stories that jolt you, take you aback, because if we genuinely want to know what makes us different as schools associated with the Anglican Church, those jolts will be at those points of difference.
Those jolts will show us where we’ve unthinkingly begun to take secular stories for granted. We all do that, to some extent. Think, for example. Are we telling stories in our schools and churches which will help people believe that they have the strength within them to be and do anything? That hard work, self-care and high goals will let them reach the stars?
Mostly, yes. Mostly those phrases seem self-evidently right. But the stories of our faith tend to clash against those stories. There’s no problem with hard work, self care and high goals – all great.
But Biblical stories tend to be starkly realistic. The trouble with telling someone they have the power within themselves to reach the stars, is that it is often - and sadly - not true. This is a real problem, a serious problem. I’ve been asking our chaplains recently to ask their students what the “best news” they could hear would be, and a repeated response has been that young people want to be released from the pressure of expectations and the weight of failure.
Because they know, they know, that no matter what they tell themselves, no matter what they do, they can never be the intellectual their parent wants or the beauty their social media demands or the sporting or cultural success their school hopes for from them.
And if they’re not, it’s completely their fault, as they also know – because society has been telling them so - that they should be able to find the strength within themselves to do it. It’s all up to them. One of the most chilling things I’ve been told this year was from a youth worker - Lorna - who said that when a young girl in her community committed suicide, the response of her friends was, “Well at least she’s free now.”
The Christian stories – our stories as Anglican schools - aren’t those of people calling on inner strength to reach the stars.
They are stories of how God takes our weaknesses, our petty failures or even our hideous atrocities, and transforms them. Which leads to the third and final story for now.
Our church is traditionally founded on Peter, a man who when dining with Jesus boasted that he could stand any trouble and would never weaken or desert him. No lack of self-confidence or high goals there.
Less than 24 hours later, Peter is shivering by a fire in the darkness, desperately denying that he was connected with Jesus in any way, as Jesus is led off to be killed. He’s not a hero. Not even his failures were heroic. Just a coward, a weak, changeful, perhaps foolish man.
But a man who is later met by the risen Jesus, who challenges him. Does he know what he has done? Yes. Is he willing to try again? Yes. Then follow me. Follow me to care for my people. Follow me, if necessary, to the cross and death, for I will be with you every step of the way. And Peter does. And is part of transforming the world.
If the stories we hear over the next couple of days don’t unsettle us, I will be surprised. Jesus barely ever opened his mouth without unsettling or offending someone. But if we dig deep, I believe we will find a treasure that our students will not find anywhere else, news that is truly and honestly and deeply good, stories that speak to our very DNA and point to a way of transformation, as Peter was transformed, of forgiveness – the lifting of the burdens of guilt and failure that our students are carrying - of purpose and of hope.
The Rev Dr Anne van Gend is Director of the Anglican Schools Office for the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.