Friday, April 28, 2017

Their Finest

Time was when we'd take our two to the cinema to see the latest Disney release, surrounded by other youngish parents and their brood. Additional soundtrack: sweets loudly unwrapped and chomped, some brat having a tantrum because the popcorn's run out, etc. Quite liked the Toy Story series and other kid-flicks. Up was amazing. So, didn't mind all that. 

Years went by and our two became teenagers. Then it was all Marvel actioners, and (please don't tell) High School Musical sequels - for our daughter's sake, honest. Additional soundtrack: noisy sweet wrappers, popcorn crunch, coke slurps, and stupid smart Alec remarks from teenagers unaccompanied by a responsible adult. A year or so ago the wife and I went to a Marvel movie and it dawned on me that I don't actually like all that Super Bat knocking down skyscrapers stuff any more. Once you've seen one moody bloke in a cape wrecking things...

Last Saturday Sarah and I went to see Their Finest. Looking around I suddenly realised that all the people in Odeon Screen 6 were old. Apart from us. And we're the older side of young. Additional soundtrack: hushed mansplaining. 

We enjoyed the film. Nostalgic, gentle, but with a real emotional pull. It was all about the production of an uplifting propaganda film during by World War II. Loosely based on the escapades of twin sisters involved in the Dunkirk rescue [kind of]. But without allowing 'facts to get in the way of the truth'. Gemma Anderton's character, Ebbw Vale girl Catrin Cole showed that when it came to script writing she was as good, if not better than the chaps. She ended up doing far more than writing 'slops', the women talk scenes between the more actiony stuff. 

A fine comic turn by Bill Nighy as past his best actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Not exactly keen on the 'corpse part' of the twins' drunken uncle, but coming good in the end. 

For film goers interested in the process of movie making Their Finest is a treat. Tricks of the trade revealed; scripting, retro  special effects, the more difficult than you'd think business of acting. Some great lines on the relationship between cinema and real life, 'film is life with the boring bits cut out'. In movie-land, points out jaded writer Tom Buckley, stories have a structure and purpose, which isn't always apparent in real life. Not without some notion of Providence, anyway. 

Unsure why a 12A aimed at a 'mature audience' had to feature some bad language. Pity. But there were laughs aplenty and heart strings were pulled. 

The trailers flagged up some more WWII flicks for 2017 including Dunkirk and Churchill. Think we'll give the next Thor vs Hulk tosh a miss, though. Getting older has its compensations. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Banner Ministers' Conference

Off to this later. Looking forward to what promises to be a good time of ministry and fellowship. Will hopefully post a report when I get back. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

1966 and all that: an evangelical journey by Basil Howlett

EP Books, 2016, 128pp 

I was a student at the London Theological Seminary (now London Seminary) from 1988-90. During the summer of 1989 I did a summer pastorate alongside Basil Howlett when he was pastor of Copse Road Evangelical Church, Clevedon. I was only there for a month or so, but during that time I learned some valuable lessons from him concerning the work of the ministry. 

The seminary was founded in 1977 by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was concerned that evangelicals were having to train for pastoral work in colleges dominated by theological liberalism. Rather than being fired up to preach the word, they were struggling to maintain their faith in Christ and love for him in the face of sustained attack from teachers who had little time for the biblical gospel. 

In October 1966 at the Second National Assembly of the Evangelical Alliance, Lloyd-Jones had issued a call for evangelicals in the mixed denominations to come together and form a loose alliance of gospel churches. Why should they remain any longer in denominations where the gospel was being denied?

Some have tried to suggest that the preacher's call was something of a damp squib. But in fact it was a turning point for evangelical witness in the United Kingdom. Basil Howlett for one was becoming increasingly unhappy with his situation as a Baptist Union pastor. His training for the ministry was undertaken by men who denied and indeed derided essential gospel truths. A number of Basil's fellow BU ministers were evangelicals, but others were out and out liberals. Church members were not as clear as they should have been on basic Christian beliefs and principles of godly living. Partly as a result of Lloyd-Jones' call, Howlett and the church he served took the costly step of leaving the BU. Many other evangelical ministers and churches in Baptist Union, Congregational, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations did the same, 

Evangelicals today have become used to belonging to church groupings like the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, In these groupings we stand unitedly for the gospel and there is no argument over essential truths. Time is not wasted on trying to advance the interests of a evangelical 'wing' of a denomination. Men can train for pastoral ministry in evangelical seminaries and colleges. These gains are at least in part a consequence of  '1966 and all that'.   

Basil's story is a reminder of the price that was paid by his generation of preachers as they endeavoured to ensure that churches were gospel-centered, and that the church groupings to which they belonged were united in biblical faith, not just denominational allegiance. It was prophesied that those, who, like Basil left their denominations were heading for the wilderness. But as his account shows, the Lord blessed their faithful stand and much fruitfulness followed. 

The basic principles for which Lloyd-Jones argued back in 1966 still hold good today. We need to be clear on the gospel, what it means to be a Christian and what is a church. The gospel must be allowed to define the limit and extent of fellowship between churches. Where false teaching is rife in a denomination, separation is called for. Secession should not involve sectarian isolation, however, for the gospel of grace unites us together in faith, love and mission. "Come out of it! But also come together" urged Lloyd-Jones. 

I for one found this a very moving and challenging read. Evangelicals in the 'mixed denominations' today would do well to review the lessons set out here. Is "in it to win it" a realistic, let alone biblically faithful strategy? Those of us who have "come out of it" need to devote ourselves afresh to the pursuit of deeper evangelical unity that respects differences on secondary matters, even as we "strive together for the faith of the gospel". (Philippians 1:27). The need of our nation is greater than ever for a bold and united witness to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. To that end, let us be prepared to stand alone together. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

John Catt Education Ltd, 2016, 309pp

This was a, 'what's all the fuss about?' read. And there's sure been a lot of fuss about this book. Cheerleaders gonna cheer and haters gonna hate. Not being especially biased either way, I wanted to give the book a decent hearing. You'll have to judge for yourselves whether or not this is in fact a fair minded review. Also, the 'hymn' bit in the title appealed to me. Most of the books I read are in the fields of theology and biblical studies, or have something to do with me being a Baptist Minister. Knowing a good hymn when I see it is part of the job. I'm also chair of governors of a LA maintained secondary school, hence my interest in the world of education. 

First up, the things that got my goat. Michella exceptionalism. You know, the 'we're the only school that does this, that and the other' bit. Even as you're thinking, 'Eh? We also do this, that and the other in our school.' Things like every day is an open day, the promotion of an ethos of hard work and kindness among students, and so on. No doubt, like all schools, Michella has its distinguishing features, but sometimes it felt a bit like me as a Baptist preacher leaning over my pulpit one Sunday morning and grandly telling my flock, 'Look, we're the only true Baptist Church in Britain, holding to the doctrine of the Trinity, baptising believers, and such.' I can imagine our longsuffering people responding, 'No we're not, silly, how about all the other ones?' Well, yes. Michaela's exceptionalist tone is alienating, where instead the school could have positioned itself as a unifying force for the new educational traditionalists on the block. Whether they find themselves in free schools, academies, MATs, or bog standard LA comps. 

Plus, a bit premature, isn't it? I mean, writing a book on how amazing your secondary school is, when you've only got a Key Stage 3. All progress measures must be based on internal assessment. No GCSE or A Level results to benchmark how you are doing against the national picture. How's your Attainment 8/Progress 8 figures/Post 16 performance measures? That's the proof of the pudding. I hope that Michaela lives up to its promise and results are up there with the top 10% of schools year in year out, but that remains to be seen. Not having a Key stage 4 also means you haven't got Year 10 & 11s coming into that 'difficult age'. That's where things can start to get complicated. More to behaviour management then than getting kids to pick up a grape without throwing a strop. May have been better to have waited until there was some hard evidence to back up the claims made here. 

Then there's the martyr complex, 'everybody hates us' thing. Look, it's not just new-fangled free schools that get dissed. Try turning around a forever RI comp and you'll have grief. Shed loads, occasionally. So what? It's all about ensuring the best outcomes for students. Worth taking a bit of negative publicity for that, isn't it? You could call it the 'Luke effect', "Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets". (Luke 6:26).

Multi-author works can often appear fragmented and lacking in coherence, which is fine if the book is a collection of essays exploring variations on a theme. Not so fine if the work is billed as an exposition and defence of a 'way'. I wasn't expecting expecting the conceptual clarity of the Definition of Chalcedon, but the title seemed to promise an orderly and systematic presentation of the Michaela 'creed' and doesn't quite deliver on that front. The book could have done with an introductory chapter that set out the 'Michaela Way' as an integrated educational vision. The following chapters could then have shown how aspects of the 'way' worked out in practice when it came to curriculum design, pedagogy, pupil discipline, and so on. As it was, I left the book a little puzzled as to where the 'Michaela Way' came from as an educational philosophy, its underlying presuppositions, and so on. That lacuna made the work seem more like a high grade how-to book than an attempt at offering a compelling and coherent educational vision. 

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I found myself joining in with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers at many points. Even without the benefit of a 'vision thing' chapter, it is clear that the driving theme of the Michaela 'battle hymn' is that progressive education is bunk. Absolutely no truck is given to child centred learning, relativistic approaches to pupil behaviour, or pedagogy that places the acquiring of nebulous skills above that of solid knowledge.

I must 'fess up' at this point and admit that most of what I know about pedagogy has been gleaned from bits and pieces I've come across on Twitter. But from what I've seen, an increasing body of research evidence seems to show that teacher led instruction is a more effective way of conveying knowledge and enabling mastery than pupil discovery-based models. (See here and here, for Nick Gibb on this). The chapters by Joe Kirby on Knowledge, Memory and Testing and Olivia Dyer on Drill and Didactic Teaching Work Best demonstrate how Michaela has drawn upon some of the latest research in developing its curriculum and in-house teaching style.

It is arrant nonsense to say the advent of the internet means children no longer need to be taught stuff because now they can look it up on Wikipedia. Students of all backgrounds benefit hugely by being taught the best of what has been thought, said and done by teachers who are experts in their fields. Knowledge mastered and remembered is power. Aside from cultural empowerment, we also need to factor in the additional weight given to terminal exams in the new style GCSEs. A facility for Googling is of no help in the exam hall.

I also appreciated Michaela's hard-edged approach to inclusion, where all students are expected to make excellent progress, whatever the disadvantages of their background or SEN issues. To suggest otherwise is to succumb to soft bigotry of low expectations. As is making allowances for bad behaviour on the part of some pupils. At Michaela all are required to work hard, be kind and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Similarly, when as chair of governors I speak at parents' evenings I make it clear that we expect our students to be considerate, conscientious, and courteous - all of them, at all times. Rigorous and consistently applied systems need to be in place to ensure good behaviour is appropriately rewarded and bad sanctioned.

Now for the theology bit. Aside from the 'hymn' reference in the title, the book is peppered with biblical allusions. Joe Kirby draws on 'the Matthew effect', citing Matthew 25:29. In the blurb on the back cover Michael Gove writes, ''This book is their testament and my gospel." But the 'Michaela Way' is not and does not purport to offer a Christian vision of education. Many aspects are certainly in harmony with the Christian faith such as the rejection of Rouseeau's Romantic view of children, the recognition of teachers as authority figures, and an emphasis on personal responsibility and discipline. Education at Michaela is seen as the pursuit of truth through acquiring knowledge and an exercise in character formation.

Can't argue with any of that. But a distinctively Christian vision of education would flow from the realisation that, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". We come into our own as homo sapiens (wise people) by understanding ourselves and the world around us in relation to God. As the Reformer John Calvin put it, "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:1:1). It is for Christian parents with the support of the church to provide their children with a God-centred vision of education. That holds true whether they homeschool, or send their children to schools in the private or state sectors. 

In Michaela's 'us against the world' dictum I discerned a faint echo of the words of Athanasius, champion of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century AD. With the support of Roman emperor the heresy of Arianism had gained acceptance in the church. Athanasius was having none of it. People tried to browbeat him into submission saying, "Do you not realise the whole world is against you?" To which the church father is reputed to have replied, "Then Athanasius is against the world." His doggedness won the day and the church was restored to its confession of one God in three persons. A similar determined resilience will be required on the part of those who set themselves against the world of progressive ideas and practices that for far too long have held back educational outcomes in England. 

That said, the trad/prog divide shouldn't be absolutised. Traditionalism at its worst is incapable of embracing necessary reform. Progressivism at its worst refuses to learn from the wisdom of the past and is therefore doomed to keep on finding new ways of repeating old mistakes. An element of creative tension is needed between preserving the best of the past and rising to the challenges of the future. We should not romanticise the 'good old days'. I well remember being bored out of my tiny mind by lessons that comprised of little more than 'dictation', punctuated only by a pause by the teacher to chuck a board rubber at daydreaming pupil. Double physics with Mr. Whatshisname, complete with bow tie, winklepicker boots and a mission to put generations of children off the wonders of science for life. Who'd want to go back to that? 

Readers won't find everything in these pages to their tastes. The Michaela approach to pupil discipline can seem a tad harsh. I think performance related pay has its place in improving the quality of teaching and raising standards. Group work isn't all bad when carried out in lessons that are predominantly teacher led. If it is, how come many Russell Group Universities use it in their science and engineering courses? The quality of the chapters is uneven. Some writers are quite didactic in style, referencing scholarly studies. Others are more 'chatty' and anecdotal. The work is characterised by a defensive stance, adopted to fend off anticipated brickbats. Reflective self-criticism can be lacking. On occasion the pride contributors have in their school seems a little self-congratulatory. Such quibbles aside, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers is a thought proving read that deserves serious attention from anyone who has an interest in the future of education.

As I say, I'm a governor, so I will conclude with some thoughts on how fellow govs might find this work useful. Not that we should attempt to turn our schools into mini (or maxi) Michaelas, but there's no harm in reflecting on what might be be learned from this trailblazing school. Some questions for govs to ponder as they seek to sharpen up the strategic leadership and accountability they give their schools:
  • Does your vision for the school include a commitment to academic excellence and pupil character development?  
  • Is the curriculum sufficiently broad, enriching and rigorous, both in its vocational and academic elements? Or are some subjects taught simply to boost the school's standing in the Performance Tables, although they are of little benefit to students? (Like the discredited ECDL). 
  • Does the in-house style of teaching help ensure the mastery and memorisation of knowledge by students, with the result that rapid and sustained progress is made by all? Is this evidenced in internal data reports and exam results, for all types of pupil? 
  • Are systems of pupil behaviour and discipline implemented with rigour and consistency, leading to children being considerate, conscientious, and courteous at all times? Can this be seen when governors visit the school? What do student panels say? What do parent surveys say? What is attendance compared with the national average? What about exclusions? 
  • Are school leaders burdening teaching staff with excessive workload due to systems of data collection and work scrutiny? What do staff surveys say?
  • To what extent is CPD aimed at deepening teachers' subject knowledge, as well as enhancing their skills? Do governors receive reports on the CPD programme and its impact? What do staff surveys tell you about the quality and effectiveness of CPD for all teaching staff from NQT to UPS?
  • Is inclusion hard-edged, with the same high expectations concerning behaviour and academic progress for all pupils? How are governors monitoring this? Are all students making at least the expected progress, given their starting points?
Enough. We've had Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and now Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. Apart from a brief foreword by the Michaela Governing Body, governance barely gets a look in here. Shame, that. Maybe the time has come for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Governors? Set to the wonderfully strident tune Rachie by Caradog Roberts. 'All together now...'

* I am grateful to the publishers for sending me this complimentary review copy. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter: bad news/good news?

People sometimes give us a choice over whether we want to receive bad news or good news first. Bad news to get it out of the way, followed by good news to cheer me up a bit is my preferred order.
At first glance the Christian message of Easter seems like bad news. Jesus, a man renowned for loving words and deeds was condemned as a criminal and crucified. Jesus’ followers thought that was the end of him. Disillusioned, it seemed to them that the kingdom of grace and justice he proclaimed was just another false dawn.
What they failed to see was that the death of Jesus was no accident.  It was God’s appointed way of bringing in his kingdom. Jesus had said as much, telling his followers that he had come to ‘give his life a ransom for many’. In other words, Jesus paid the price of sin by dying for us on the cross. Now we can be forgiven and put right with God through faith in Jesus.
And his death wasn’t the end. Jesus rose from the grave on the first Easter Sunday morning and appeared to his followers, showing them that he was alive from the dead. It was the last thing they expected. They could barely believe it, but it was true. The same Jesus who was crucified, was alive. 
First the bad news: the world crucified the King of Love. Then the good news: the King of Love was crucified for world and rose again from the dead. That is the glorious message of Easter. 

*For News & Views & Holy Trinity Parish Magazine 

Monday, April 03, 2017

Revival the New Testament Expectation by Jonathan F. Bayes

We devoted last Wednesday's Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal to reviewing and discussing this title. Robert Oliver gave a review paper and then we weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of the book together. Here are my impressions for what they are worth. 

I should have liked this one. After all, I'm from 'Wales, Land of Revivals'™. And there are many good things about Bayes' treatment of the theme. He helpfully shows how the New Testament draws on Old Testament prophecy to raise our expectations concerning the reign of Jesus and the advance of the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit. The writer relates genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17 to what the psalms have to say about 'Great David's greater Son' in Psalms 72 & 89 and the salvation of the nations in him. 

Good stuff. But as the book progresses you begin to think to yourself, 'Is this a New Testament theology of revival, or an attempt to argue for postmillennialism?' You perhaps wouldn't think it from reading Bayes, but you can have one without the other. Amillennialists may even believe in revival. Premillennialists can speak for themselves.The author gives the game away in the chapter on Revelation, where he 'outs' his postmillennial predilections. Never would have guessed,

It's a pretty extreme version of postmillenniallism at that. You know those great texts that you always thought were about the world acknowledging Jesus as Lord when he returns in glory, like Philippians 2:9-11? Well, that's really for the millennium. And those passages you always thought were about the consummation redemption at the end of the age such as Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:19-20? You guessed it, they are about the millennium too. So much is reserved for the millennium that it is even hinted that Revelation 21-22 is about that supposed golden age, rather than the final state of glory. Talk about over-realised eschatology with postmillennial nobs on. Please

Bayes admits that we can expect opposition and setbacks when it comes to the advance of the kingdom in this age, but he is so full of heady optimism that he gets carried away with giddy talk of unimpeded gospel progress. The New Testament never says that. We could call the planting of the church in Thessalonica a revival situation, 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6, but there were very real hindrances to the work, 1 Thessalonians 2:18. When Paul used triumphalistic language, it was always chastened by the reality of suffering and hardship for the gospel's sake, Romans 8:37-39, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 cf. 1:8-11. 

Rather than envisaging the whole history of the church as being one of constant revival as the norm, Paul warned Timothy that in the last days (the whole New Testament period), perilous times would come (2 Timothy 3:1-9). In those times many would turn away from the truth and it would be hard going for faithful preachers of the gospel. Such tensions are pretty much overlooked in Bayes' treatment. 

Paul regarded the Old Testament prophecies concerning the salvation of Gentile peoples in Christ as fulfilled under his own ministry, Romans 15:7-21. So much so that he regarded his work in the Roman Empire as complete and planned to head for Spain by way of Rome, Romans 15:22-24. Old Testament prophecies such as Psalm 72 would be better understood as speaking about the global mission of the church from the Pentecost to the Parousia, rather than pointing to what may happen in the millennium. That mission is sometimes carried forward as a result of intense revival blessing, sometimes not. Think of William Carey plodding away in India. 

More fruitful materials for developing a New Testament theology of revival might be found in giving attention to the relationship between word and Spirit in preaching and the apostles' prayers for greater boldness and fruitfulness in their gospel proclamation, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Ephesians 6:19-20. Bayes' handling of the Acts material is more sure footed, especially Acts 4:23-31. When it comes to prayer for a revival of believers' love for Christ and a deepening of their experience of his love for them, we could do little better than look to Ephesians 3:14-21. Oddly, the writer makes no mention of this passage. Something of an omission given his definition of revival as, "a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit leading to the rekindling of love for Christ on the part of his people, and an explosion of gospel effectiveness with a visible impact on the nation and the world."

Bayes' attempt at discovering a theology of revival in the Gospels, would have been strengthened had he not jumped straight from the death of Jesus to the Great Commission. Was not the resurrection of Christ from the dead the ultimate reviving work of the Spirit? The Israel of God personified dead and buried. Written off by the world and mourned as a lost cause by his people. But up from the grave he arose. Israel's return from exile, depicted as the resurrection of a great army, (Ezekiel 37) was a prophetic anticipation of the literal re-vival of Jesus. The God who who raised up our Lord Jesus is able to breathe new life into dying churches. 

I accept the writer's argument that the New Testament rather than our current experience of gospel work in the UK should be allowed to set our expectations of what God can do. When it comes to revival, I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Edwards who said, 
It may here be observed, that from the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy.
Yes, we should long and pray for a 'remarkable communication of the Spirit of God' in our day. How we need that if we are to re-evangelise our land. But loose talk of a postmillennial paradise doesn't reflect the tension we find in the New Testament between gospel advance and opposition that the church can expect to face in the world until Jesus returns in glory.