Bishop Malcolm McMahon has backed the setting up of state-funded “free schools”, the cornerstone of the Conservatives’ new education policy. Under these plans, parents, charities and other not-for-profit groups can apply to the Government to set up free schools that would be relatively independent of local authorities. Bishop McMahon, chairman of the bishops’ Department of Education, reckons that these schools, based on a highly successful Swedish model, replicate the setting up of Catholic schools in the 19th century. And he wants to begin talks with the Tories to see how the Catholic community might offer its experience should free schools become Government policy.
The bishop is to be warmly applauded for sticking his neck out on this matter. He is endorsing a policy, not a political party (Bishop McMahon is not a natural Tory, as he would be the first to admit). This newspaper, too, believes that the free schools model has a great deal to recommend it, for reasons spelled out by the bishop. “The traditional triangle of home, school and parish has come under severe strain in recent years,” he says. He sees free schools as not just an educational resource, but also as exercises in community-building: localisation in the face of globalisation.
Bishop McMahon’s statement could hardly have come at a more timely moment. The bullying of Catholic schools by this Government has reached alarming proportions: the letter on this page from Dr Mary Howard, chair of the governors of St Philomena’s, Carshalton, will resonate powerfully with many Catholic parents whose faith actually counts against their children in the mindset of Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary. New free schools are a good idea; but we also need to free our existing schools from mean-minded secular interference.
Time for a crucial reform
One of the most influential figures in the Vatican is Mgr Guido Marini, who has been papal master of ceremonies since 2007 – and a huge success in the role. Mgr Marini is a central figure in the reform of the liturgy slowly and carefully being enacted by Pope Benedict XVI; the increased solemnity and beauty of papal ceremonies offers a glimpse of the worldwide revival of worship that the Holy Father wishes to initiate.
This “Benedictine” revival encompasses not only the use of the Extraordinary Form, but – of more immediate relevance to most parishes – a “reform of the reform”: that is, a further development of the celebration of the Mass of Paul VI to emphasise its continuity with the worship of our Catholic forefathers. And a crucial element of this reform is a correct orientation of priest and people, so that they face Christ together during the consecration.
Last week, Mgr Marini gave an address to priests in which he underlined the Pope’s wish that, even when a priest faces westwards, he faces a symbolic east (the direction from which Christ will return) by placing a crucifix in the centre of the altar. In most churches in England and Wales, this (literally) crucial reform has not yet been introduced. It would be a marvellous gesture of welcome to the Pope if it were to be adopted by parish priests everywhere in time for his visit.