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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Contribution to Governing Bodies of Independent Schools Conference, 2014

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Contribution to Governing Bodies of Independent Schools Conference, 2014

by glynch — last modified 13 Mar, 2014 10:54 AM

Bishop Nicholas Holtam gave the following speech to the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools Conference, 11th March 2014.

Spirituality in our Schools


The invitation to speak at this conference came, I think, because of a contribution to the annual strategy meeting of a school governing body. It is a school founded, “for the education of the Sons of Clergyman and others, in the ancient and modern languages, in the various branches of literature and science, and in the doctrine and duty of Christianity as received, understood and taught by the United Church of England and Ireland...”

Our draft Strategy did really well with languages, literature and science but said nothing at all about Christianity. I suggested that developing a response would take thought and time, but given most people think that to be human is to be religious in our pluralist world a progressive school with a Christian foundation might think it important to develop an imaginative  and creative spirit as a pillar of the student experience. And, of course, we do. This is a school with a chapel in daily use and an evident commitment to others through acts of service.

A few weeks later I received an invitation to this Conference at which issues affecting the sector are discussed… usually of a legal or technical nature…  I was told that aspects of law, finance, inspection, the curriculum and correct governance are well covered, but that  the moral and spiritual are almost totally neglected and yet these lie at the heart of almost every foundation in HMC/GSA. New gods have swept them from every governing body's agenda. The task I was given is to remind you of the spiritual and moral dimension to which, it was said, we pay scant attention today.


‘Spirituality’ is that integrative inner life by which we organise ourselves giving an account of:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I?
  • What sort of character am I?

It is not just a private, personal matter. We live in a family and society, within a culture in which we human beings belong together.

Last week I was privileged to be at the service in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the life and work of Nelson Mandela. The first time I saw Mandela in person was at Archbishop Tutu’s retirement service in St George’s Cathedral Cape Town in 1996. President Mandela walked in and everyone seemed to grow three inches. The same thing happened at Westminster Abbey even though he wasn’t there in the flesh. Archbishop Tutu preached: “[Mandela] made us believe that each one of us is made for goodness, loving, compassion, laughter, peace.”  Archbishop Tutu did not hide the political struggle he and Mandela had fought. There was a time when we were not all against Apartheid. The greatness of Mandela was that even in prison he retained immense dignity and gave hope to his people. On his release he set about forgiveness and reconciliation in building the new rainbow nation. Great lives inspire us and make us think about our own. A great life is not a perfect life. In the presence of God we all fall short, but a great life inspires. We all stood taller. Spirituality matters.

To be human is to be religious

When I was a student in the 1970’s there was a prevailing assumption that the process of secularisation was such that for sensible people, in societies shaped by the Enlightenment, religion would die out by about 2050.

Something happened in the last decade of the Twentieth Century and the first decade of the Twenty First Century that changed that.  Partly it was the presence of other faiths in this country that caused people to consider the meaning and significance of their own culture and its roots in Christianity. Partly it is that we are now global and 8 out of 10 in our world identify with a religious group.[1] was the rise of religious fundamentalism and its global political significance. For whatever reasons, our lack of care about sustaining our religious literacy has left us impoverished and less able to discriminate about matters of religion. We have forgotten that good religion is life-enhancing yet we know that bad religion is lethal.

The religious aspect of life has not gone away. Despite the onslaught of a popular new atheism even in the UK 60% of the population say they believe in God, whatever that means.  To be human is to be religious.


Can you have ‘Spirituality’ without religion? Yes, of course you can. There has been a huge rise in Generation SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). Lots of schools have sought to do this thoughtfully by focusing on values rather than faith.  This is done for good reason and it is inclusive.

 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just found in the teaching of Jesus. Confucius said the same. It is the Golden Rule and found in the world’s Wisdom traditions.

I was in a school on Saturday where the new Head had made a significant change by insisting on the virtue of kindness. Almost every school has a values statement. Some of them are brilliant. In a Primary School in Dorset I was given a banner with the most important of the school’s values: Faith, Hope, Love, Trust, Courage. I asked a 10 year old how they had chosen them. There was quite a long pause and then she said, “Well it was really difficult. We talked for a long time and we disagreed and discussed and then decided these were the most important.” I think it wasn’t conscious but this young person, in a Church Primary School, was echoing St Paul and the things that last for ever[2].

There have been some interesting attempts to identify the things we mostly agree are good. The German Theologian Hans Kung wrote about ‘Global Ethics’[3] in connection with the Parliament of the World’s Religions meeting in Chicago in 1993 which declared:

We take individual responsibility for all we do. All our decisions, actions, and failures to act have consequences.

We must treat others as we wish others to treat us. We make a commitment to respect  life and dignity, individuality and diversity, so that every person is treated humanely, without exception. We must have patience and acceptance. We must be able to forgive, learning from the past but never allowing ourselves to be enslaved by memories of hate. Opening our hearts to one another, we must sink our narrow differences for the cause of the world community, practicing a culture of solidarity and relatedness.

We consider humankind our family. [We must strive to be kind and generous. We must not live for ourselves alone, but should also serve others, never forgetting the children, the aged, the poor, the suffering, the disabled, the refugees, and the lonely. No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever. There should be equal partnership between men and women. We must not commit any kind of sexual immorality. We must put behind us all forms of domination or abuse.

We commit ourselves to a culture of non-violence, respect, justice, and peace. We shall not oppress, injure, torture, or kill other human beings, forsaking violence as a means of settling differences.

We must strive for a just social and economic order, in which everyone has an equal chance to reach full potential as a human being. We must speak and act truthfully and with compassion, dealing fairly with all, and avoiding prejudice and hatred. We must not steal. We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, prestige, money, and consumption to make a just and peaceful world.

Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed first. We pledge to increase our awareness by disciplining our minds, by meditation, by prayer, or by positive thinking. Without risk and a readiness to sacrifice there can be no fundamental change in our situation. Therefore we commit ourselves to this global ethic, to understanding one another, and to socially beneficial, peace-fostering, and nature-friendly ways of life.]

We invite all people, whether religious or not, to do the same.[4]

You can almost hear them saying, “Well it was really difficult. We talked for a long time and we disagreed and discussed and then decided these were the most important.”


What about religion, and specifically Christianity? The values of the New Testament are mostly the common currency of the day and are still what most people would regard as good. They are distinctive but not unique. Every religion contains within it an account of what it is to be human:  Who am I? What am I? What sort of a character am I?

Judaeo-Christian Traditions

Gossaert Adam and Eve.jpgThe Hebrew Scriptures contain an account of our being made in the image of God. In Jan Gossaert, Adam and Eve, c.1520 Adam and Eve stand in the Garden of Eden between the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adam has just tasted the apple that Eve holds, while the serpent watches from above.

Having been told the story of creation in six days in Genesis chapter 1, there is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis chapters 2 and 3. That there are two creation stories in the Book of Genesis makes it clear we are not dealing here with science or history but with an exploration of what it is to be human. In Hebrew Adam means ‘man’ and Eve is linked with the word for ‘life’ and a similar Hebrew word meaning ‘snake’. We are creatures tempted to want to be like God. We find it difficult to take responsibility for ourselves and, when found out, are prone to hide and pass the blame. Adam blames the woman for tempting him with the forbidden apple, she blames the serpent for tricking her. No scientific account of human nature could convey so well their feelings of guilt and shame. Banished to a place east of Eden they are consigned to a life of toil with a memory of paradise and a hope of heaven. Adam and Eve are everyman and everywoman.

Idolatry is the curse of religion, substituting what can be manipulated for what is real but no longer credible or is simply too painful or difficult.  It was G. K. Chesterton who observed “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried” and, “When people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.”

Poussin Adoration of the Golden Calf.jpgNicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1633-4 explores this wonderfully. In the formation of the people of Israel, God sets before them a choice of life and death. God’s commandments are life-giving ordinances. The exodus from slavery in Egypt is an experience seared into the Jews. Before entering the promised land they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. They murmured and complained. They lost confidence in Moses and in God. The people felt that Moses had lost his way and that he delayed on Mount Sinai. In Exodus chapter 32, with the priest Aaron’s help, they made a golden calf and worshipped it.

Poussin depicts a scene of great drama. In the top left Moses is coming down the mountain carrying the two tablets bearing the covenant with God. There are stormy skies above as he sees the calf and the decadent dancing. The biblical account says Moses burned hot with anger. At the bottom of the mountain Moses broke the tablets, burned the calf, ground it into powder and made the Israelites drink their own foolishness. It is a powerful punishment for their sins.

Keeping the commandments for Jews is the mark of keeping faith with God.  Jesus was a Jew and one of his best known stories explores both the meaning of the law and who teaches it to us.

A lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus asked him what is written in the law and he replied with the well-known summary that we should love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus said he was right, ‘Do this and you will live.’ The lawyer, wanting to justify himself (that’s a big mistake for anyone with Jesus), asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10: 25–30).

Bassano Good Samaritan.jpgTo answer the lawyer Jesus told the story of The Good Samaritan, one of the best-known stories in the Gospels, here painted by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1562-3. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was beaten by robbers and left half dead. Two men, a priest and a Levite, went by on the other side for good religious reason. They saw what appeared to be a dead man and had they touched a corpse, either they would not have been able to perform their religious duties in the Temple or they would have spoilt the good effect of having done those duties by making themselves impure. So for good religious reasons they passed by on the other side. A Samaritan, whom Jews despised, saw the man and was moved to pity. He bandaged him, poured wine and oil on his wounds, put him on his animal and paid for him to stay at an inn. In Bassano’s picture the Samaritan literally takes the weight of responsibility for the beaten man.

‘Which of these was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’, asked Jesus. ‘The one who showed mercy’, replied the lawyer, unable even to say the name ‘Samaritan’, so much were they despised. Our neighbour is anyone in need, not just people like us, and it is scandalous that the despised Samaritan, an outsider, showed good religious people the meaning of the law. Go and do likewise.

Religion and morality are not the same. The religious story is richer, deeper, divine. It has great potential to transfigure and transform. Most schools give excellent opportunities for students to experience doing good and giving charity but parents pay so much for their child’s education partly to avoid them being confronted by such a shocking experience as to be taught by even a good Samaritan.

Karen Armstrong, who writes brilliantl;y about religion and especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam,  suggested that the essence of all religion is compassion and compassion has to be cultivated. “If we practice compassion, de-throne ourselves from the centre of our throne, putting another there, we learn about the egotism, and we learn to take that ego gently to one side.”[5] She is very interesting in saying this has to be cultivated, a bit like practising to play an instrument or any skill. When I asked the Chaplain and Head of RE at the school I was visiting on Saturday what I should say to you, they both said every school says it is committed to education of body, mind and spirit but the leadership of most schools puts all the weight of thought, time and money on mind and body.

Some schools have started to teach periods of silence. Some schools are teaching mindfulness, which I think has its roots in Buddhism but it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In principle this is a neutral way of encouraging a reflective inner life that we would all applaud. The trouble is that universals do not exist as a Platonic ideal. To belong everywhere you have to belong somewhere. What we all want is depth and not just superficial acquaintance. In our context, for reasons of a good education as much as of faith, it still matters that we teach Christianity not just as history, philosophy and ethics but as the lively faith of a religious community including experiences of worship and prayer.

This is good news for a bishop but it is also good news for cross-curricular studies. When I was doing ‘A’ level English my teachers lamented our not knowing the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer as well as the previous generation. We missed so many of Shakespeare’s Biblical references and allusions. A third of the paintings in the National Gallery are of Biblical scenes.

For at least the last 100 years secularism and pluralism have created greater diversity of culture than was at times previously the case. That has created a good deal more choice and relativism in religious matters. We now live in a world of faiths and of none. But if we do not help our youngsters to develop their religious experience and imagination with confident creativity we impoverish them and reduce their ability to explore and interpret the world.

In Titian’s painting of The Tribute Money 1560-8 a religious leader tries to trap Jesus with a political question:

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22: 15–22

Titian Tribute Money.jpgTitian shows Jesus looking clearly and confidently into the eyes of the person seeking to trap him. Yet in terms of its teaching, this is one of the most enigmatic encounters in the Gospels. What it says about God and Caesar, paying taxes, and the Christian engagement with political life and power is not clear. But a Jew at the time of Jesus would have heard an unspoken second question: ‘And you, whose image are you made in?’ with its answer that we are called to live as people made in God’s image.

It is only by gaining a real and personal competence in using the traditions of Christianity that we become creative in the way Jesus was perceived to be creative, teaching with authority, addressing the issues of the day.

Who am I? What am I? What sort of a character am I? Spirituality is at the heart of what we do as schools; not spirituality cut free from religion but earthed in deep and creative Christianity that has been capable of reform and adaptation so that it informs, illuminates, inspires and gives life in every time and place.

[1] Eileen Graham, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: public theology in a post-secular age, SCM, 2013.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.13 “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

[3] Hans Kung and Karl-Josef Kuschel, Global Ethics: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Continuum, 1993.

[4]  Parliament of the World’s Religions, Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, 4 September 1993, Chicago, U.S.A.

[5] Karen Armstrong, Charter for Compassion launched November 2008.

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