Today the Church of England unveiled a new document designed to help tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (‘HBT’ – because there aren’t enough acronyms already) bullying in schools. You can read the press release on that page, and the document itself is linked at the bottom.
Personally I find the document deeply troubling – although I (of course) agree that all bullying is wrong, I think the document is on the wrong track about the solution needed. The main problem I have is simply this: the document has an entirely secular view of what it means to flourish – which, for a church publication, is pretty awful. And, secondarily, it doesn’t really get to grips with a Christian response to LGBT pupils.
Let me write briefly about those two things.
What is human flourishing?
The document seems to make a lot of human flourishing. The Executive Summary (p5) says:
Church of England schools have at their heart a belief that all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually.
This sounds like management speak. The language of ‘potential’ is one which is not taken from the Bible: fulfilling our potential sounds very ‘me-focussed’ – we are not here to fulfill our potential but to glorify God.
Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) The real genius, if I may put it like that, of Jesus’ words is that we only find our true potential when we deny ourselves and take up our cross – when we die to ourselves, we find true life.
It’s precisely this kind of language which is absent from the CofE document.
The core of education in the CofE Vision for Education is “Life in all its fullness”, which is explicitly taken from John 10:10 (see page 10). The problem is, this is completely devoid of meaning if it is taken out of the context of John’s gospel. When Jesus said those words, he didn’t mean that he wanted everyone to have the kind of life they always dreamed of living, or have a good life whether they believed in God or not. As I explained in my post about mental health, this is God’s world. We only achieve “Life to the full” when we live in accordance with God’s will and his ways – in contrast with “the thief” who comes “only to steal and kill and destroy”. As Jesus said in the previous verse “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” You can’t take ‘fullness of life’ as a principle and ditch the rest. It just doesn’t work!
The next page of the CofE document goes on (and I could pick many examples, but I will make this the last one): “At the heart of Christian distinctiveness in schools is an upholding of the worth of each person: all are Imago Dei – made in the image of God – and are loved unconditionally by God”. Again – one cannot talk about being made in the image of God without talking about the Fall, where we – as one of the CofE confessions puts it – “marred your image in us”. One cannot talk about unconditional love without talking about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.
Quite frankly, all this is sub-Christian. This doesn’t even mention the basics of the gospel, let alone have a coherent theological framework.
Supporting LGBT pupils
On page 19, the report talks about supporting LGBT pupils. It says:
An important aspect of creating an inclusive school environment is the support offered to LGBT pupils. Many LGBT pupils do not feel supported at school and many report that they do not have an adult at school with whom to talk about being LGBT. This can impact on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils and it is therefore important that school staff members receive appropriate training to support young people. For many, coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or non-binary is a joyful liberation into full selfhood. However for others it can become a lens through which other issues of personal non-acceptance are magnified. Supporting pupils struggling to feel at home within themselves requires careful discernment and loving wisdom.
This paragraph does not read to me like it was written by someone who actually believes what the Bible (and the CofE – for the moment) teaches about marriage. Surely a Church of England school should have the confidence to believe and teach what the Church of England believes? As I said before about Tim Farron, God doesn’t simply give us arbitrary commands because he feels like it. God doesn’t want to spoil our fun, he wants to maximise our joy – which is why he gives us good rules to live by. Those who go outside of these rules are harming themselves.
Surely this has a big impact on how we offer support to young people. We can’t simply say that we’ll offer support to affirm children in whatever decisions they want to make on these issues. If we believe in the Bible, if we believe in what Christians have always believed, we have to say that we cannot affirm things which are against God’s will. And that’s what baffles and distresses me about this document – there is no gospel at all in it. There is not even a hint of a suggestion that God might want us to live in particular ways. Although it recognises that there may be different opinions about sexuality etc. in the school, it simply sides by default with the ‘affirming’ viewpoint.
This is simply not a Christian document.
Responding to bullying
I believe that children should not be bullied. I was bullied at school, I know many others who experienced the same – it can affect you well into adult life. Nonetheless, I don’t think this response is sufficient when it comes to bullying.
Jesus tells us that the second greatest command is to “love others as yourself”. He demonstrated what that meant in his own life. You can love people while strongly disagreeing with them – in fact, loving them sometimes requires you to disagree with them! (Ian Paul wrote a great blog post about this today.)
Jesus’ response to those who he considered sinful (i.e. everyone) was not to condemn: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Instead, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Jesus had compassion on those who were broken and hurting – but it was a compassion which led to transformation.
People who truly believe in the traditional Christian ethical teaching on marriage and sexuality should never bully anyone – because loving people is part and parcel of that same ethical teaching. But it is from love that we should boldly proclaim God’s way of living.
We live in strange times, where even defending the traditional Christian view of marriage can get you into hot water (see e.g. Tim Farron and Jacob Rees-Mogg for two examples lately – there are many others). Some people think that simply stating the case for Christian marriage is bullying!
What is incomprehensible to me is that the CofE should be encouraging its schools to essentially deny the gospel and contribute to a secular worldview which is leading to the demise of the CofE. Affirming children in sin is unloving, uncompassionate, and fundamentally unChristian. And the church should have no part in it. Rather, the church should be holding out the light of Christ to all, teaching children what it means to follow him.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)