Friday, May 27, 2016

Rome/Venice 25th Anniversary Tour

Sarah and I will have been married for 25 years in July. To celebrate we're off to Rome and then Venice next week. We're looking forward to seeing the Coliseum and perhaps taking a Gondola ride. Flights and the train ride between the two great Italian cities will give me a bit of reading time. I'll be packing Lila, the latest of the 'Gilead' novels by Marilynne Robinson, 

Monday, May 23, 2016

EU - Remain or Leave: the definitive view

Alright, alright. 23 June is looming and A) You haven't yet made up your mind how to vote. Don't worry. It doesn't mean you're weak and indecisive. B) You've made up your mind, but you're wrong. Don't feel bad about it. We're only fallible human beings.  C) You've made up your mind, and you're right. That'd be nice, but it's unlikely. Whichever way you vote, things won't turn out as you thought. Which is another way of saying you were wrong. Sorry. Can't be helped.

May I make some assumptions? Let's say you're not one of those slackers who just can't be bothered to tune in as another lengthy segment of BBC Question Time is given over to discussing the EU referendum. That's sheer who indolence, right? You've read the Leave stuff. You've read the Remain stuff. You've read the Electoral Commission's stuff with Leave and Remain stuff in it. Even watched the Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman documentaries. Not to mention countless pro and anti pieces in various papers all about the important FACTS, like who's going to come out of this the best, Dave or Boris?

Yes, FACTS. Give us the FACTS about the economy, security, democracy, immigration, our international standing etc. FACTS. No, not the inny facts, or the outy facts. FACT facts. Huh? 

Sorry to come over all epistemological on you, but given that humans are finite, situated beings, all facts are experienced empirically through our senses and/or processed rationally by the thought processes of our minds. On that basis there are no uninterpreted facts. Only God's knowledge is archetypal, boundless and infallible. Contrastingly, our knowledge, is ectypal, bounded and fallible. That's why we're often mistaken about things. Blind wrong, even, on occasion. 

Does that mean we're lost in a fog of unknowing subjectivity? Not necessarily. We can know stuff truly, but not all that there is to know about it. Certainly the future is a closed book. The outcome of our decisions is often other than as we expected. In this instance, we simply can't know what effect Remaining in the EU or Leaving it will have on the future prospects of the UK. The one scenario may have less disadvantageous effects than the other, but, it's difficult to assess which one it is.

As for me, I've tended to be in favour of remaining in a reformed EU. But Cameron failed to achieve the radical reforms that are needed for the EU to function less as a wannable superstate and more like an alliance of nation states. And that was with the implicit threat of the UK leaving the EU resting on the reform package. But are things really that bad as they are, with the UK as a member of the EU? Can we be sure that pulling out will make stuff better? 

The grand hopes of the Brexit dreamers seem as doubtful to me as those of the EU romantics. Deeper integration won't lead to a new utopia. Neither will separatist isolation. In or Out we'll still be living in a fallen world, where morally and intellectually fallible people will operate fallible systems of governance, and in which unexpected events will happen to blow the best laid plans off course. The question is whether Europe and the UK would be better placed to weather the storms of history together, or apart?

Am I being so pessimistic as to say that in a fallen world things can only ever get worse? Not quite. It's better to live in a democracy, subject to the rule of law than under a dictatorship, subject to arbitrary rule. If Zimbabwe enjoyed the UK's political system its people would be immeasurably better off. But the EU choice is nowhere near as stark. No one can be sure that the positive consequences of Leave or Remain would outweigh the negative. Yet opting out is probably a bigger step into the unknown than opting to stay in. 

There's no 'Christian view' to guide us here either. How nations relate to one another is a 'common kingdom' issue, on which the Bible gives no clear guidance. Even on Christiany stuff like morals and values, freedom of religion, the cause of mission in Europe, etc it's difficult to say whether Leave or Remain is the best thing to do. In weighing things up Christians will just have to consider the balance of probabilities, watch more QT, read more In/Out propaganda, pray for wisdom, sniff the air, and vote. That's the definitive view. We'll, kind of. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Identity Crisis

One of the big things at the moment is ‘identity politics’. Some people define their sense of who they are according to their gender identity or sexual orientation.  Several student groups have tried to ban speakers from university meetings because their views may challenge the way in which some young people perceive themselves. The recent attempt to ban feminist firebrand Germane Greer from a such an event on account of her outspoken views on gender identity is a case in point.
Others build their sense of identity around their work. They are first and foremost an accountant, businesswoman, professional athlete, builder, or whatever. The trouble with that is when people lose their jobs or have to retire from work, their whole identity is thrown into question. They feel at a loss, not knowing who they are any longer, or what they are going to do with themselves.
The Christian’s sense of identity is based on knowing that God created all people in his image and that he loves all human beings, whatever our gender, race, or social background. The believer also sees himself or herself as being accepted by God in Christ. We don’t have to try and impress God by our efforts. He graciously forgives all who believe in Jesus and gives us a new identity in Christ. That new identity in him is rock solid. 
I was struck by the words of Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby in response to revelations concerning the identity of his father that must have have a disorientating effect on who he perceived himself to be. He wasn’t blown off track by the breaking news testifying, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
In an age where many are suffering from an identity crisis, its a joy to know who you are in Jesus.

For News & Views, West Lavington and Trinity Magazine, Dilton Marsh

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Chair's Handbook NGA Guide

The Chair's Handbook: A guide for chairs of school governing boards,
Gillian Allcroft & Emma Knighs, National Governors' Association, 5th Edition, 2016, 72pp

I didn't especially want to be Chair of Governors. I joined our school's governing board as a Parent Governor, not really knowing much about governance. The existing chair seemed pretty well established and didn't look as though she was going anywhere. Only I was wrong about that. One FGB she suddenly announced that she was standing down. Soon. By that time I'd only been a governor for a year (since January 2012) and didn't feel up to taking on the role. Neither did anyone else for that matter. "Would anyone like to be considered as chair?" asked the outgoing one. The wind whistled around our ears like in that tense moment after a gunfight in a cowboy film when the Colt 45s have fallen silent. No one made eye contact. Tumbleweed rolled across the boardroom floor. "That's a 'no', then." Certainly was.

The LA was approached (quaint, eh?) and they managed to rustle us up a recently retired headteacher to act as chair. Her main task was to oversee the appointment of a substantive headteacher, as an acting head was in place at the time. Oh, and she also had to lead us through an Oftsed inspection a couple of months after taking the chair. RI if you must know. And another thing was to spot a successor from our own number. A substantive headteacher was appointed, due to start in September 2013. That job done, the chair could now concentrate her efforts on digging an escape tunnel. Cue 'Great Escape' music. 

Only I was the escape tunnel. Won't bore you with the details, but I was persuaded that I was the right man for the role and was duly elected to serve as chair in July 2013. Steep learning curve. You don't know what it's like to be chair until you're it. The clerk is calling for a decision. The headteacher wants to discuss how best to handle a tricky situation. Then there's the board. You have to ensure that they become a strategic leadership team, united behind a common vision, working with the Headteacher in pursuit of shared goals. Now you can't become aware of an 'issue' and think, 'Oh I'm sure someone else will see to that', because if you don't get it seen to, no one will. Troublesome colleagues are now your problem, as are those who's attendance at meetings isn't what it should be, or their contribution to governance negligible. 

I was used to chairing meetings and leading a group of volunteers, which was a good start. Those bits are part and parcel of my role as a Baptist Minister. The Church Members' Meetings which I chair as pastor have formal agendas; the church's vision, goals and activities are discussed, accounts received and so on. But those were the only types of meetings that I'd ever chaired. I was a bit worried that I'd begin my first FGB in a non-denominational school by saying, "Let us pray" and finish up pronouncing the benediction. Thus far I've managed to avoid confusing pulpit and chair.

When Ofsted came to call in February 2015 they found the GB in much better shape. The school was judged 'Good' with many outstanding features. We're forging ahead with our ambition to ensure that the school is a world class centre for teaching and learning at the heart of the local community. But there's still a lot to do and I'm going to need to be at the top of my game as chair to ensure that the governing board plays its part effectively. That's why the NGA's The Chair's Handbook is such a useful publication. For newbie chairs it is an invaluable guide to help you get a handle on a role that has in all likelihood been thrust upon you. For more experienced colleagues, the work offers an opportunity for us to review what we do against the models of best practice offered here. 

In crystal clear prose and with the help of user friendly diagrams the guide focuses on on seven crucial areas for chairs: 1. Leading governance in schools. 2. Leading and developing the team. 3. The chair, the headteacher and accountability. 4. Leading school improvement. 5. Leading governing board business. 6. Becoming the chair. 7. Leaving the chair. This edition is fully up-to-date, including when required, differentiated advice for chairs of governors in maintained schools, Academies and MAT boards. It really is a one stop shop for all things chairy.

Especially when you've been chair for a few years it's good to stand back, take stock of your work and consider what needs improving. With clinical accuracy authors Gillian Allcroft and Emma Knights expose chairing shortcomings that need correcting. I tend to be quite self-critical anyway so reading stuff like this can be quite painful. But there we are. I suppose it's worth triggering a bout of gloomy introspection if it makes me a better chair. There's certainly nowhere to hide for poor practitioners, from control freaks who can't delegate to inadequate numptys into whose heads a remotely strategic thought has never popped. Although they don't put it quite like that.

I once heard a fellow-chair say that his role was not to give leadership. That kind of thing was down to the headteacher. While it's true that the head is expected to lead the operational running of the school, it's not his/her job to lead the board to which they are accountable. That is very definitely the chair's role. As the headings listed above indicate, the guide has a welcome emphasis on the chair as leader of governance. The authors state,
The chair leads the governing board, ensuring it fulfills its functions well. The culture of the board is largely determined by the chair, for better or worse. A good chair will ensure its focus is on the strategic, and it is no exaggeration to say that the success or failure of the board depends heavily on the caliber of the chair. (p. 10)
No pressure, then.

Reading The Chairs Handbook may also serve to highlight issues that have been relegated to the back burner which need to be addressed with greater urgency. Succession planning is one thing. I don't want to leave the GB in a position where they are unable to appoint my successor from among our own number. By the time I'm done it may be no good looking to the LA for help. 

Being chair of governors is an immense privilege and is actually rather enjoyable. Especially as you see the board growing in strength, colleagues stepping up to take on new roles, and, above all the school you serve going forwards in leaps and bounds. It also helps if you like a challenge. But more is required of a chair than well-meaning enthusiasm. They need a clear understanding of their role and the qualities needed to make a success of it. The Chair's Handbook very definitely points us in the right direction. The guide should be mandatory reading for all current practitioners and wannabes.

Thanks, @NGAMedia. An electronic version for Gold members would make it easier to share some of the excellent material for board-level discussion.  

Now to that escape tunnel. Da da dah dah dah da da...

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ecclesiastes: A Quest for Meaning? by John D. Currid

EP Books, 2015, 154pp

It is commonly acknowledged that Ecclesiastes is one of the most difficult books to understand in the whole Bible. Many a believer has puzzled over its meaning as they have grappled with the author’s seemingly bleak view of life where ‘all is vanity and grasping for the wind’. A commentary like that of John D. Currid’s which unfolds the message of Ecclesiastes in a plain and straightforward way is most welcome, then, as the book has some valuable lessons to teach us.

The commentator argues that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes. He rightly notes that defining the recurring word ‘vanity’ (Hebrew hebel) is key to understanding the book. Despite what the New International Version says, it does not mean ‘meaningless’, but ‘fleeting’, like a puff of wind. The Preacher brings us face-to-face with the brevity and uncertainty of ‘life under the sun’.

Some suggest that we should regard the book as a kind of pre-evangelistic tract that shows us the emptiness of life apart from God. That is certainly one of the Preacher’s main themes, but, as Currid shows, that is not all that there is to his message. Ecclesiastes encourages those who believe in God to enjoy life as a gift from him. Knowing that helps us to treasure this fleeting life and rejoice in God’s good gifts of work, family life, food and drink.

The Preacher certainly does not view life through rose-tinted spectacles. In this fallen world we witness suffering, injustice and the loss of loved ones. But we are assured in Chapter 3:1-8 that all events are subject to God’s sovereign control. Currid sees the material in Chapters 4-7 as a series responses to objections to God’s sovereignty, but that is to force the material into too rigid a grid. It is difficult to see how Chapter 5:1-5 fits into that scheme, for example.

Ecclesiastes isn’t simply about trying to make sense of ‘life under the sun’ with all its perplexing challenges. As Currid brings out, it is a deeply practical book. Wise counsel is offered concerning our attitude to fame and fortune, youth and old age, and how we should relate to those in power. The book helps to foster a godly attitude to life as summed up in the words of its conclusion, ‘Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man’. (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

The author writes with simplicity and hints at how the lessons of Ecclesiastes may be applied to our everyday lives. He relates the teaching of the book to the fuller revelation of the New Testament and shows how the Preacher points to Christ.

This is a useful addition to the Welwyn Commentary Series, which is aimed at the 'ordinary Christian reader', rather than pastors or biblical scholars. Currid's work is certainly better than its predecessor in the series by Stuart Olyott, Preachers will find some useful material here in getting to grips with the overall message of the book. But Currid sometimes skims over the text rather than digging deep. Preachers will need to look elsewhere for a thoroughgoing exegetical commentary. Michael Eaton's contribution to Tyndale series is quite good in that respect. Derek Kinder's Bible Speaks Today offering is full of insight. Tremper Longman's scholarly NICOT commentary is pretty dire. Completely misreads the book, making Qoheleth a Yahweh-skeptical cynic.  

'Of the making of many books there is no end' says the Preacher. But a finding a decent exegetical/theological/practical commentary on Ecclesiastes that traces the line from Qoheleth to Christ is like grasping for the wind. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Some thoughts on virtue, grace and character education (with a little help from John Owen)

John Owen (1616-1683)

“Education without values, as useful as it is,
 seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” 
C. S. Lewis
'Character education' is one of the Big Things in the world of schooling right now. In the private sector they've been at it for years. Former Master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon is often regarded as the doyenne of character education. He famously introduced wellbeing or happiness classes during his time in charge of one of the UK's top private education establishments. Alongside forced (make that 'encouraged' in the light of the recent policy u-turn) academisation, character education is also a key aspect of Nicky Morgan's education policy. A lot of thought has been given to this in recent years. The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, attached to Birmingham University is devoted to researching character education and has produced some useful material in the field, including its Framework for Character Education in Schools. A renewed interest in education as character formation has trickled down to the level of local schools, where you're as likely to hear headteachers speaking about the 'resilience' of their students as their Sats/GCSE/A-Level results. 

Character education goes beyond a school's 'values'; things like 'Creativity', 'Success' and 'Respect', and crosses into the territory of moral formation. The Jubilee Centre's core virtues include; Courage, Justice, Honesty, Compassion for others, Self-discipline, Gratitude and Humility. These help to give definition to what is sometimes called a 'sense of moral purpose'. I think the author C. S, Lewis, cited at the top of this post, would have approved. He was evidently worried that even in his day education was in danger of becoming a utilitarian value-free zone, where what mattered was a student's cleverness rather than his or her character. Saying that, the Jubilee Centre's work is not altogether free from utilitarian influences. They advocate a value-laded approach to education not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it works,   'The research evidence is clear: schools that are values driven have high expectations and demonstrate academic, professional and social success.'

But what's good old John Owen got to do with it? Well, I'm currently reading through Volumes 13-16 of his collected works in preparation for contributing a paper to a 'Reading John Owen Conference' at the Evangelical Library to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth. Owen was a 17th century Puritan theologian. He is often regarded as one of England's greatest theological minds (although, as his surname suggests, he had Welsh roots). Owen found himself a marginalised Nonconformist after the Restoration of the Monarchy. He was a keen advocate of toleration for Nonconformists and argued against the imposition of Anglicanism by the State. It was in that context that Owen gave close attention to the relationship between moral virtue and grace that is of relevance here.

Of course, the Puritan theologian's religious context was very different to our own, and he was not out to address the issue of 'character education' as it is commonly understood today. There is always a danger of anachronism when we bring the views of a historical figure into dialogue with a contemporary issue. But with that qualifier duly in place, it struck me that what Owen had to say has a bearing on a the development of a distinctively Christian attitude towards character education in the 21st century.

In the late 17th century Owen engaged in controversy with Anglican apologist, Samuel Parker, penning, Truth and Innocence Vindicated: A Survey of A Discourse Concerning Ecclesiastical Polity, and the Authority of the Civil Magistrate Over the Consciences of Subjects in Matters of Religion (Works of John Owen, Volume 13, p. 343-506). Parker had argued that it was the duty of the magistrate (the civil authority) to uphold virtue. Virtue, he continued was a key aspect of Christian faith and worship. The magistrate therefore had the right to 'command anything in the worship of God that doth not tend to debauch men's practices or to disgrace the deity'. Further, that, all subordinate duties, both of morality and religious worship are equally subject to the determination of human authority.' (p. 410). 

Owen's aim was to show the Christian faith, life and worship are subject to the determination of the Lord Jesus and the rule of the Word of God, He does not deny that it was the duty of the civil authority to promote moral virtue in its citizens, but virtue is not the same as what he called 'graces'. According to Owen, Christian conduct and worship are graces, not simply virtues. Indeed, as he demonstrates, the language of 'moral virtue' used by Parker is foreign to Scripture, owing more to Aristotle than the Bible. While Owen would not ban it from Christian theology altogether, he much preferred Scriptural expressions such as 'repentance toward God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, or the fear of God, of holiness, righteousness, living to God, walking with God, and before him.' (p. 412-413). 

As far as 'moral virtues' are concerned, Owen understands them to be 'duties of the law'. That is 'the law of nature' or 'the law of our creation', to which Paul refers in Romans 2:14-15. This law is written on the hearts of all human beings and is summarised in the Ten Commandments. Moral virtues, then 'consist in the universal observance of the requisites and precepts of the law of our creation, and dependence upon God thereby' (p. 413). Owen acknowledges that these duties 'may be performed by men in their own strength' apart from the 'assistance of the Spirit or the sanctifying grace of Christ' (p. 414). These duties may indeed be regarded as 'virtues' and Owen does not belittle their worth, 'Good they are in themselves, useful to mankind, and seldom in the providence of God go without their reward in this world' (p. 414). 

To deny the reality of these moral virtues is to descend into a morass of moral relativism, 'Thus we grant moral virtue to have been in the heathens of old, for this is that alone whereby they were distinguished amongst themselves: and he that would exclude them all from any interest in moral virtue takes away all difference between Cato and Nero...and overthrows all natural difference between good and evil' (p. 414). But that is not to say that no distinction is to be made between moral virtue and grace, or that moral virtues performed apart from gracious assistance are accepted by God. For that would be tantamount to Pelagianism. 

The difference between moral virtue and graces is not to be understood in terms of what is right and wrong in itself. The 'law of creation' or the 'light of nature' is rooted in man's creation in the image of God. Grace does not destroy nature, but rather redeems and perfects it. Spiritual graces, however, are not the product of human effort, but are the result of "the effectual working of the Spirit of God in and upon the minds and souls of believers, thereby quickening them when they were 'dead in trespasses and sins,' regenerating them, creating a new heart in them, implanting his image upon them." (p. 415-416). In other words, graces are evangelical; an effect of the life-transforming gospel of Christ. 

While the state may rightly seek to promote virtuous conduct in line with the 'light of nature', it has no power to produce gospel graces. These graces are the fruit of the gospel and go way beyond general moral duties. They include repentance from sin, faith in Christ's atoning work, seeking forgiveness, wholehearted obedience to God, self-denial, taking up the cross and the mortification of sin. Owen concludes, 'To persuade us now unto a religion, as respects to God, without those duties which arise from the consideration of sin and a Redeemer, is to persuade us to throw away our Bibles.'  (p. 420-421). 

On the relationship between virtue and grace the divine was able to say, "It is granted that wherever grace is there is virtue; for grace will produce and effect all virtues in the soul whatever. But virtue, on the other side, may exist where there is no grace; which is sufficient to prove a distinction between them." (p. 426). Had he denied that grace produces virtue, Owen would have severed the link between nature and grace, creation and new creation. Such a denial would also have been tantamount to antinomianism, given his insistence upon the link between the 'law of nature' and the Decalogue. Not all virtue, however is evangelical virtue, which is the fruit of the gospel and receives its distinctive character from the sanctifying power of Christ in the believer.  The fruit of the Spirit, delineated in Galatians 5:22-23 are no mere 'moral virtues', then, but gospel 'graces'.

But that does not mean moral virtues should be disparaged. Owen would much rather a Cato to a Nero. Reformed theology has traditionally deployed the category of 'common grace' to describe God's work in restraining sin and promoting moral virtue through the civil authorities and cultural influences. In terms of 'Two Kingdoms' theology, this is the realm of the 'common kingdom' where believers work side by side with non-believers in pursuit of the common good. Christians may have a beneficial impact on the life of the common kingdom, where they act as 'salt and light' (Matthew 5:13-16). As such, Christians will be supportive of character education in state schools and want to include moral formation in their vision for 'common kingdom' education alongside the teaching of academic and vocational knowledge and skills.

This is one of the areas where the Christian faith does not confront the culture, so much as confirm and complete it. I say 'complete it', because what character education and moral formation is aiming at; producing people who will pursue the good life, comes into its own in the gospel. Christianity teaches the moral frailty of all human beings. That does not mean we are all as bad as can be, but that however commendable may be our outward conduct in many respects, we are all sinners and that makes us morally flawed people. The unfailingly honest may sometimes be cruelly blunt. More sensitive souls may be tempted to tell a so-called 'white lie' rather than confront someone with an unpalatable truth that they need to hear. The answer to these inconsistencies is not a little more moral teaching, but a radical change of heart. No amount of character education can do that.

As Jesus said to Nicodemus, a deeply religious and moral man; "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Now we are no longer in the domain of the 'common kingdom', but the 'redemptive kingdom' of grace. It is by the work of the Spirit that the heart is made new and 'graces' produced that are not merely useful to men, but pleasing to God through Christ, Romans 6:22-23. Jesus has entrusted the task of proclaiming the life-transforming message of salvation to the church. She is called to echo the words of her Master, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15).

Character education is an excellent product of common grace. Heart transformation is the amazing work of God's special grace in Christ and by the power of his Spirit. Here we are not in the realm of 'British Values', but Kingdom Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-10.