Shrink-wrapped Heaven

As regular readers will know, I’m always interested in the connections between things – and the more unlikely the better.

Sunday Times readers in Scotland will have seen that I have been responding to Secretary of State Jim Murphy’s recent lecture on faith and politics. Yes I do think that this must be read in the pre-election context and the Cardinal has responded in kind. The result is what I called faith shrink-wrapped.

I visited Glenalmond College this morning and offered a chapel-full of teenagers a vision of heaven – a response to ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ I have to say that they did not immediately stand on their seats and cheer.

Pride and Privilege

Much chat in the salons of Perthshire at present about the three programmes on Glenalmond College – BBC2 Scotland only, I’m afraid. Feelings seem pretty mixed. But then I would say that since, as part of the College Council, I had a share in the decision to allow the programmes to be made.

My feeling is that the group who came out best was the staff. Pupils are more fortunate than they know to have staff around who don’t just teach – but do a lot of caring, nudging and encouraging as well. Our children went to Portadown College, our local grammar school – and local grammar schools in Northern Ireland are excellent. But as I watched the Glenalmond staff at work, I asked myself who did all that stuff with our children – struggling with the UCAS form, role-playing interviews, sorting out what they were going to do next? The school did its best. But we did much of it.

I think that in the end what I found disappointing was that the three programmes were trivial about important issues. No real exploration of what it means to use very loaded words like ‘Pride and Privilege’ .. about the range of different things which parents who choose Glenalmond or similar schools hope that their £24000 will buy. Some are simply buying the best and most rounded education they think they can have for their children.  The shadow side – and there is always a shadow side – is that some may be seeking to buy access to privileged networks of ‘one of us’ contacts.  And in the middle are those tangible but indefinable things which independent schools tend to bestow and state schools do not – the sense of independence, self-confidence and leadership.  But they missed the opportunity and caricatured instead.  Every time I appeared dressed in funny clothes, they said how traditional the school is – no exploration of the extent to which it is a faith school or of the real significance of the chapel and its life in the school – no challenge to the church about pride and privilege. Should we not be with the poor and the outcast?

Half my day will be spent at Glenalmond tomorrow. I find it a fascinating place and I admire much of what it does. I carry into it years spent serving on and chairing Boards of Governors in schools in Northern Ireland. I think particularly of Killicomaine Junior High School – where our children also went. The budget was 20% of the resources available to Glenalmond. The Governors were local people – parents, teachers, local councillors – doing their best to support the school community. Never anything like enough money. Struggles with a small minority of parents who made the school very difficult to manage at times. But take a look at their website and marvel at what they achieve with so little.

The heart of education for me is parents trying to do the best they can for their children. That is as true of Killicomaine as it is true of Glenalmond. But the issues raised by the differences deserve a more serious exploration than they received.

Floreat Glenalmond

Commemoration Day at Glenalmond College. My feelings change. This used to be one of the moments when I felt a long way from former life .. less so now. But strangely, it also reminds me of childhood and my time at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen – I could see my father measuring out the athletics track with chains. As a special treat, I would be allowed to push the little machine with the wheels and the whitewash.

First challenge is to decide where to park the faithful Passat [163000 in case you were asking]. Clearly not among the flashier 4 by 4’s – some of this is a bit ‘Glyndebourne meets Hogwarts’. So I found a quiet corner among the cars of those who buy cars on the same time sequence as they buy tweeds.

The Commemoration Service is unchanged since 1936 – some pieces of the BCP Funeral Service as we remember OG’s of past generations. Chaplain Giles reminded me of one former pupil who ‘received a vocation to sacred ministry while on the cricket pitch.’ Which of course sent me into chapel pondering. Unlikely to have been batting .. too busy to take the call as Wicket Keeper. Probably fielding at Long Stop. At least the camera for the fly-on-the-wall documentary can’t read minds.

Then it was prizes and the College Song:

Rivorum, ruris, montium, Silvarum Domina …

I’m sure you don’t need help with translation.

Ciel Blue

Spend more than half the day at a ‘Blue Sky’ thinking meeting for the Council of Glenalmond College. Added interest came from the fact that was being filmed by Saltire Films as part of the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary which they are preparing on the life of the College. This meant that I had to remain in ‘media mode’ for the whole morning – listening intently to everything anybody else said, remembering not to scratch myself, making at least one devastatingly ‘on message’ intervention, refraining from dealing with correspondence, writing sermons, etc. I still find the whole thing fascinating – since I carry the recent memory of being Chair of Governors at a Junior High School in Portadown. The budget was one seventh of that at Glenalmond and, while the majority of parents were totally supportive of the school, there was a minority who made it almost unmanageable. Our children passed through that system and Portadown College to follow – and it did them proud. But this is somewhat different. You may have noticed recent reports which suggested that children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds who were sent to independent boarding schools in some cases thrived – the strong culture of order and discipline and the constant presence of highly committed adults … I can understand that – having been given the most stimulating intellectual workout in a while by one of the staff over lunch – creative writing, theology, sociology, politics … all in one. But, sadly, I couldn’t afford to send myself there.

Mystery of Chaplaincy

We installed Giles Dove as Chaplain at Glenalmond College on Sunday – better picture to come shortly, I hope! I always enjoy being there, particularly in the beautiful chapel. It reminds me of childhood and the community at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where my parents taught. I kept an eye on the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary makers who were filming and, I hope, not recording my sotto voce mutterings to myself.

Meanwhile, as the diocesan clergy and I joined the school community to celebrate the new ministry, I pondered the huge opportunities which Chaplains have. The Chaplain has access to the whole community of staff and pupils – he doesn’t have to run around trying to find people. And he has the Chaplain’s privilege – whether school or hospital or prison or service life – of being on the inside but not quite part of ‘the system.’