Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: July 2011

Why the Right has it right on education – probably

In the many column inches devoted to education, and especially to tuition fees, there is much talk of ‘privilege.’  You may well think that I, as a beneficiary of education at not one but three universities, am a clear example of it.  And you’d be right.  I have indeed been privileged.
I have been privileged by parents who valued my education enough that rather than let me flounder at the under-achieving local comprehensive, they paid boarding fees to send me to a state, grant-maintained boarding school (where, for the record, day pupils paid no fees).  They could have spent their money on other things, but chose to make a sacrifice.  They, in turn, had been privileged by the state grammar schools which educated them to be the first generation in their families to enter higher education, and so paved the way from working class life into the professions.  And they had the support of blue collar parents who learnt the value of education again at the grammar schools which they had to leave at the age of fifteen so that they could earn their crust.
So in short, I have been privileged by three generations of selective state schooling: the sort of schooling that the Left has for thirty years devoted itself to demolishing.
 It has taken a right-wing Labour Prime Minister and a Conservative-led government to stand up to the failing leftist orthodoxy of a one-size-fits-all compulsory education.  The number of schools applying for academy status is soaring as head masters and mistresses strive to take the curriculum back into their own hands.  Free schools, despite predictable attempts at sabotage by the more thuggish leftist elements, also seem set to return the privilege of a fine education to the children of those whose taxes fund it.
The new structures give some sign of hope that pupils from poorer backgrounds may have the learning (if not the earnings, but we’ll come to that) needed to matriculate at university.  Oxbridge admissions departments are often lambasted for admitting so many more privately than publicly educated entrants.  I have said before that universities cannot be expected to compensate for the failings of state compulsory education.  The government’s reforms are a step towards the social mobility that the old grammar school system provided.  True equality among university entrants will be achieved not by admitting the under-privileged, but by privileging all.
That said, we should note that the statistics for state school entrants can be misleading: not all state schools are the equal.  Public services in wealthy catchment areas tend to be far better than those in poorer ones, and schools are no exception.  Cambridge itself is notable for this: one of the wealthier areas of the country has the best health services and schools.  So, it’s a city of rich people who don’t need to spend money on private education or healthcare, but can spend it on overpriced houses, holidays and cars.  Are these really the people intended to benefit most from the welfare state, I wonder?  It would be shocking if their children were given an advantage in university admissions over privately educated pupils simply to fill a quota of state-educated pupils.  For this reason, I suspect that higher tuition fees will make very little difference to social mobility in the short term.  The people who would have paid fees anyway will continue to do so, and those who would not now have more of an excuse not to.  Governments will no doubt paint a picture of rising state school entrants, but I suspect that these will come from the middle class families who can afford to live in areas with decent state schools.  The money they save on private education they can spend on university fees instead.
The only problem with the great improvements being made to secondary education is that they are too little and too late.  In fact, about thirteen years too late for many an eighteen year old.  My wife, who is a primary school teacher by profession and a researcher in infant child psychology, tells me that there is something like a three year gap in emotional and mental development between children from middle class and poorer backgrounds.  Worse, she can see this in children as young as five years old.  The chances are that even before they get to primary school, their ability to concentrate enough to study has already been determined.  This sounds fatalistic, and I’m sure there are counterexamples, but it really does seem that the first step to increasing social mobility is changing the attitudes and lifestyles of poor parents.  The greatest privilege one can have is a supportive family and community of adult role models.  In areas blighted by generations of unemployment, alcoholism and an utter lack of self worth, this is just not there.  In such places, it will not matter how great the schools and teachers are until these issues are addressed.  One brief but unfashionable suggestion being proposed by Ian Duncan Smith’s crowd is this: finish school, don’t have children in your teenage years, and don’t have children out of wedlock.  Statistically, at least (which means it could be baloney, granted), it seems that those who have children later, when they are more financially secure, and bring them up with a partner legally bound to them, prosper considerably more than those who do otherwise.
If the governments changes in state education and the social initiatives of IDS do take off, high university fees will then become a genuine problem, rather than the bogeyman I suspect they are at the moment.  But counterintuitively, Oxbridge will be the best placed institutions to offer places to poorer students, rich as they are in endowments and real estate-funded scholarships.  Other universities will need to follow suit.  We will also need to rely more on philanthropy and alumni contributions.  The difficulty with the latter is that those institutions which educate people for the lower paying professions such as teaching and nursing will reap the least yield.  My own college, Selwyn, which has by the intention of its founders produced plenty of clergymen and schoolmasters but precious few business tycoons, is one example of this, something like those poor East End Anglo-Catholic churches which struggle to pay their incumbent while the rich, middle class Evangelicals up the road have a troop of curates. These are the institutions to which tuition fees pose the greatest threat.  Perhaps the answer is in selective government funding, rather than its wholesale removal.
Friends have been puzzled by my political shift in recent years.  How, we used to ask together, could anyone with a conscience ever vote Tory?  Tuition fees are enough to make my support wobble, I confess, although we will have to wait and see: sufficient bursaries could still make them work.  But for the rest, I remain secure in my conviction that my vote was and remains one for social justice.  I used to say that I was a champagne Socialist, in that I wanted everyone to have the champagne.  My means have changed, but not the end.  Now, I think that the way to give the poor the prosperity they need is not by increasing their dependency on the state which has failed them, nor by subsidising a welfare state which frankly benefits the wealthy more than the poor.  Rather, it is by building the economic productivity of the nation so that all have the freedom and responsibility of ownership.  Prosperity will be won not by a rhetoric of favouring the under-privileged, but by ensuring that all have the privileges which people like me have enjoyed.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Ascension 2011 – posted a bit late, I fear

“God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises!” +In nomine…

Fitting, that I should preach this sermon facing the great statue on the East wall. Our Lord may have been rather better dressed at the Ascension, but otherwise, our statue fits St Luke’s description well: “He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”

But why? Why should Our Lord ascend to share God’s throne in heaven when He could have ruled so effectively here among us? The sort of earthly rule, perhaps, that David prophesies in his last words: “When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning.” But Jesus, typically contrary, rises up instead into the clouds.

Of course, we have the theologian’s textbook answer: Christ ascends blessing creation in order to unite heaven and earth. Ah! So there we go, the end. Amen. Sorry: you haven’t got off that lightly. Because quite clearly, that isn’t the end of the question. We are still right here on earth, and even the delights of Selwyn College are not enough to make us think that we’re in heaven yet.

Excuse the platitude, but summer in Cambridge is a time of transition. While you’re sitting in libraries writing up dissertations or cramming for exams, as like as not your mind is all too often elsewhere. In the future. Dreaming up exotic holiday plans, worrying about starting your new job (or getting one), imagining curtains for your swanky new pad.

There is something of this ambivalance, this double-mindedness, about the Ascension. Our glorious Reformer Archbishop Cranmer clearly had this ambivalence in mind when he drafted the Collects, for Ascension Day, and for today, the first Sunday after. The former leaves us like those first Apostles who witnessed the Ascension, feet on earth but hearts and minds gazing into the firmament; while the latter tells of loneliness and separation, yet pleads for later comfort.

The Collect for Ascension Day, which Cranmer modified from the Gregorian sacramentary, has a mystical edge quite alien to the general proclivities of the Reformation: ‘Like as we do believe thy only begotten son our lord to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.’ Note that again: we pray to ascend ‘in heart and mind’ to be with Christ in heaven. No trifling request, given where Christ is: seated on the heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father. We are to rise with Him, as Ephesians has it, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named:” to the heavenly Kingdom beyond even David’s prescience.

Protestant orthodoxy tends to emphasise the unbreachable divide between our fallen world and the perfect realm of the Divine. Yet this Collect expresses a desire for mystical union between the two. Now, Cranmer would not have us pray for anything if it did not have firm scriptural support. And this he finds, a little further on in Ephesians, in the crucial sixth verse of chapter 2: God ‘raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ If Anglican theology rests not so much on the principle of ‘sola scriptura’ as ‘tota scriptura,’ and we are to take Scripture in its entirety, then we, no more than Cranmer, have any right to ignore the implications of this verse. We must live with the paradox that while we remain on earth, we are at the same time and already in some sense ascended into heaven; our humanity deified by a man on God’s throne, so that through the blessing of Christ ascendant, Creation and the uncreated are mystically bound.

The bit about ‘minds,’ it must be said, was Cranmer’s innovation. The original Collect spoke purely of the heart’s ascent. And so it seems to me that the locus of this mystical union lies precisely there. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it succinctly: “Therefore saith Saint Paul…: Although our bodies be presently here in earth, nevertheless our living is in heaven. He meant their love and their desire. (…) And surely, as verily is a soul there where it loveth, as in the body that doeth by it and to the which it giveth life.” Our soul is with the object of its desire as much as in our body: and that desire must ever be directed towards Christ on His heavenly throne. Love, desire, eros, yearning, of God for us and us for God, is the invisible cement that binds Creation to its uncreated source. — Yet, at the same time, we must resist the temptation, like the Apostles, to stand gawping in mystic revery. Acts 1.11: the white-robed men (angels?) are sent to make a pointed reminder: ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ Or in modern parlance, perhaps, ‘get your heads out of the clouds!’ And this, in a way, is the message of today’s Collect, just three days after the Feast of the Ascension; modelled by Cranmer on the antiphon for Vespers of Ascension Day supposedly uttered by St Bede on his deathbed:

‘O God, the king of glory, which hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ, with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven; we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our saviour Christ is gone before.’

No time for mysticism here. Christ is gone! And we are left gazing upwards, slack-jawed. Leave us not comfortless, O God!

With the benefit of hindsight, we, unlike the Apostles, know the rest of the story. And so Jesus’ comments to them in Jn 16 and 14 are less obscure to us: ‘I will not leave you desolate. I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth: you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.’ We are not left staring, lost and dumb, at a God as unknown and invisible as before. We look to the hope of glory uncreated, incomprehensible, but are not left without the means of grace to find our way. The Christian faith is grounded even after the Ascension in the historic, concrete reality of Christ Incarnate; ours is a faith which embraces the material and the here-and-now. And so as Christ leaves, completing our redemption, He opens the way for Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit, for the gift of divine love and the establishment of its vehicle, Christ’s Church on earth. ‘You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.’ Our hearts ascended, we see Him still, dwelling within ourselves and each other. Our minds ascended, we know Him still by the breaking of the bread: and as the bread turns into His body, the wine into His blood, so our sorrow turns into joy and our hearts settle deeper in their true, heavenly home.

Christ ascended to reign: beyond the power of mortal reign, in the invisible kingdom of love. A rule not of compulsion and command, not contraining us to serve Him by demonstrations of power, but in the free response of love, the love of that Spirit which He had the Father send and plant in human hearts. Indeed, those who reduce our faith to external commandments stand against the Ascension of Christ: because they deny that His Spirit is now internal to us, indwelling, and that His true commandment is love.

“When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,” said David in his dying words. Christ rose into the clouds yet to reign as a brighter sun than any earthly king. Let me finish with some words by John Keble:

“We must not stand to gaze too long,
Though on unfolding Heaven our gaze we bend
Where lost behind the bright angelic throng
We see Christ’s entering triumph slow ascend.

“No fear but we shall soon behold,
 Faster than now it fades, that gleam revive,
When issuing from his cloud of fiery gold
Our wasted frames feel the true sun, and live.”


The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Infant Latinists

So much for the rhetoric of ‘accessibility.’ If nothing else, the video below shows that we don’t need to patronize children by dumbjng down- in the classroom or at Mass.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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