Love & Mystery

Sunday 29th October 2006
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
St Giles, Shermanbury
2 Timothy 2:1-7

Picture, if you will, the poverty, disease and casual cruelty, recently seen on our television screens, at Lowood School in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or the cruelty that cannot be disguised by the caricature at Dotheboys Hall in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby; then, perhaps, recall the more humane but still austere inter War environments of the Marcia Blaine Academy in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (made so famous by Maggie Smith's cinema performance), or Kiplington High School for Girls in Winifred Holtby's South Riding. As it is so central to our personal growth and sense of our own culture, not to mention our economic prospects, we all have very strong feelings about education. This, of course, is why we get so steamed up about contemporary techniques and targets and are all too easily tempted to look back to a golden age when "A" Levels were the gold standard.

All these models of education, from Lowood to the present day are institutional. The responsibility for the growth of the child is split between a number of teachers and care staff in dual hierarchical structures. Yet in spite of the fact that we have borrowed so many terms from ancient Greek education such as Gymnasium and Lycee, it is very difficult for us now to get under the skin of the educational values of the ancient world. The best place we could start our investigation today would be with the Hindu tradition of the itinerant Swami and the settled Ashram.

In the time of Jesus, too, there were settled communities like that at Qu-mran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were copied and studied) and itinerant teachers like John the Baptist and Jesus. If you look at the Gospel sketches of the early ministry of Jesus, particularly in John, you will see that, according to custom, teachers sought disciples and vice versa; terms were discussed and deals were made. There is no evidence that either John or Jesus took money but generally teachers expected to live with the support of their pupils.

Paul, however, was a new breed of teacher. Following on from the tradition of the 'Deacon' Philip in Acts 8, Paul wandered far too widely to command a fixed coterie of disciples. We know that he settled during Winters and pursued his trade as a tent maker and - typical of Paul - he was ferociously, even aggressively proud, of his financial independence.

So Paul's relationships with people like John Mark, Titus, Philemon, Silas and particularly Timothy were intensely personal, non-economic and crucial to the development of the Church. In all but name, Paul was a Bishop in the sense we would understand it today, which explains why so much of his letters to Timothy are concerned with order in the early Church and the passing on of theological insight and the gifts of the Spirit.

We only have to look at the learning practices of the ancient world to see how different they were from ours and how Paul fits into that pattern. In the time of Paul it was immensely difficult and costly to produce a single copy of a single book and that continued to be the case right up until the invention of movable type and the printing press by Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th Century. Because books were so rare, the great skill was not in comparing a huge variety of texts, as we do today, so that our classic examination question is: "Compare and contrast". In those days the great skill was to look into an idea or a work to try to penetrate all its subtleties. Imagine if, as Christians, the only written material we had was the Bible and nothing else; no spiritual literature, no holy books, no Christian magazines. So when Paul in this evening's reading talks about sound teaching he is talking about a fundamentally inward experience, transmitted through his Old Testament scrolls and his word; it was like Homer plus the Holy Spirit!

In the ancient world a few lawyers undertook vocational education but the learning we are looking at here - and in the ancient world as a whole - was learning for its own sake. These people were, to use our contemporary word, Amateurs; but remember, the root of amateur is to be a lover of something. Paul was urging his followers, and Timothy in particular, to teach in the context of deep love for the text and for his disciples.

In a culture which lauds the professional and has rather a down on amateurs, we need to make a radical difference of focus to understand that ethos. For the best and worst of reasons, successive governments have striven to make the education system more universal, more quality assured, more target driven, more benchmarked and more relevant but, again, for the best and worst of reasons, we no longer have a situation where teachers have the time to impart the inner meaning of a beloved text in a spirit of love, with the understanding that the study is worthwhile in itself; art for art's sake. The national curriculum, the literacy and numeracy targets, continuous assessment and competitive examinations have tempted all of us into the mythology of the golden age.

But as Christians any such tinkering with the inputs and outputs of formal, secular education can only be a self-interested hobby. What matters is that we must reintroduce into our spiritual learning, into our Bible study, into house groups, into discussions of doctrine and ethics, two vital elements which Jesus emphasised, particularly in John, and which Paul elaborated. These are the reality of mystery and the imperative of love. Many Christians today in prominent positions have clearly forgotten both of these tenets: to many nowadays, inheritors, though they seem not to know it, of the 18th Century 'Enlightenment' the Bible, the Word of God, holds no mystery at all, it is a text book with a set of clear, uncontestable meanings which no longer bear the kind of looking into that we discussed earlier; it has lost its mystery. Many of these people, too, have lost the imperative of love, teaching aggressively, even combatively. They forget all those passages in the Gospels on the danger of putting doctrine above mystery and love.

Of the four books I mentioned at the beginning of this address, the first two are clearly descriptions of education as low margin private enterprise whereas Jean Brodie was cultivating an elite. Only Winifred Holtby really conveys the idea of love and mystery in education but her untimely death and feminist socialism have left South Riding sadly out of fashion.

But this is no time to despair, no time to give in either to bland secularists or bullying evangelists. We must keep mystery and love at the heart of the spiritual education ethos and, in that light, ask ourselves whether the debate we have had in the past few weeks about 'faith schools'* has brought mystery and love further away or more to the centre of our education system.


*On 26.x.06. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Alan Johnson, announced that he was withdrawing a legislative proposal requiring 'faith schools' to include 25% of non believers in their respective religions in their intake.