AFTER the restoration of the hierarchy in the 1850s our schools multiplied astonishingly. By the 1960s, Cardinal Heenan was still saying that the building of schools was a major priority for the church.
Ironically, the birthrate was then falling dramatically, and by the mid-seventies there were school closures all over the country. Economics impelled some dioceses to join with the Church of England in creating joint church schools.
Since the seventies we have seen a growth in their number in Torquay, Redhill, Richmond, Oxford, Taunton, Windsor and recently, Cambridge. Private convent schools have for decades taken many nonCatholics, but these new schools are voluntary aided, and there is equal representation of the two churches on the governing bodies.
Leaders of each community work together for the success of these new initiatives — a task which is itself an ecumenical and educational experience enriching all concerned. An RC head is usually balanced by an Anglican chair of governors or vice versa; each community elects its parent-governor; each church provides chaplains.
A share in financing the joint school is obviously an added advantage. In one case the Anglicans match the RC parish contributions exactly. The joint school gains in numbers, finance, local community involvement and staff support.
Forty per cent of staff in Catholic schools are nonCatholics, and without their contribution our system could not have expanded as it did. Their presence helped ensure that our schools kept abreast of wider developments in curriculum and organisation, but their status and ability to offer pastoral care have remained somewhat limited. Not however, in a joint school, where their Christian beliefs and ability to play a fuller part are given more recognition and freedom of action.
The shortfall of pastoral care on offer to non-Catholic children in our schools can be remedied to some extent in the joint school'. And as pupils are influenced by the models of behaviour provided by teachers, the respect for the different traditions essential in a joint school and required by ecumenism is manifest in the daily example of the staff.
When any such a merger of traditions is contemplated it needs the support of parish priests, staffs in feeder schools, and, most of all, of parents of present and future pupils. These supporters cannot, however, be taken for granted, for although parents, clergy and teachers may care very much about the system, their assessment of which aspects of it are strengths and which weaknesses vary widely. It is vital that the school's teachers are wholeheartedly behind it, for what they are doing is new and delicate, and the critics watch them closely.
The church also has the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospels. Structures and practices formulated earlier may no longer be appropriate. When we were young our schools nourished the faith and kept its practice alive in an alien protestant culture. They were not seen as nurturing community apart from Catholic life.
As our population grew, and state education evolved, the church maintained its parallel, and exclusive, system. But young Catholics are now virtually indistinguishable from their contemporaries, and no longer see their identity reflected in the many religio-cultural distinctions experienced by older generations. We are surrounded now not by a protestant culture, but by one that is more alienating — post-Christian, commercial, individualistic, greedy and dispiriting. A Catholic member of the government has declared approvingly; "People used to say, `I care, therefore I am'; now they say 'I consume, therefore I am'."
In this scenario the human person is degraded, and in the marketplace of lifestyles Christianity has become an optional pursuit. It needs therefore to have credibility among the young; it must respond honestly and deeply to people's perceived needs and doubts. For the young, the differences between Christians do not loom as large as those between Christianity and the pressures to discount entirely a religious view of life.
Many pupils in our schools do not practise the faith, nor come from practising homes. One cannot any longer assume in RE lessons that one is talking to a community of believers. If RE teachers are to have credibility they must be open and honest as well as clear and committed. Then, pupils respect them and what they teach.
The Christian school's curriculum with its messages of love and worship are not confined to RE. It resides in the way the school is run, in the relationships of all its members, in the care it gives to the disadvantaged, and its response to an anti-Christian culture, in its practices and liturgies, in what it values.
At the same time our schools must be relevant to pupils' needs in modern society. Parents want schools to manage the secular and the spiritual, usually in that order. The joint school gives a valuable, fresh context to the spiritual. The Catholics in it are more conscious of being representatives.
Many priests are nowadays experienced in local ecumenical initiatives, more at ease with other clergy. The ecumenical assembly and the ecumenical service in joint schools are taken as normal. But our priests and parents need to be reassured that joint schools are teaching RE as well as purely Catholic schools do: that how Re is taught, separately or together, has been worked out so that specific Catholic doctrine is dealt with adequately, that children are not receiving a watered-down version of the faith.
These schools must guard against the children's thinking that the differences between the branches of the Christian church are of no importance. Clarity and a critical understanding of the issues must always be sought.
In the last two years other forces have begun to bear down on our schools. It is difficult to recruit Catholic teachers, especially RE specialists. Local management of schools will make the diocese and local government less able to protect small schools.
The advent of the grant maintained school puts at risk the ability of dioceses to plan rationally as we have already seen in the Cardinal Vaughan case. There are present inducements and future plans to cause many more schools to take the grant maintained path, a route leading to more independence from council and diocese, towards more competitiveness, to a poorer education for the disadvantaged, and to the further destruction of small schools. One defence open to some of ours remains this option of going "ecumenical".
The joint school deserves to be considered as a positive development. In these days of stalled ecumenism, despite suspicion in some quarters, these schools are signs of hope. The generous goodwill of our fellow Christians and the excellent relationships which develop are bonuses. In our experience, pupils sharpen their interest in religion, and have to be more thoughtful and articulate about their beliefs.
Christianity is also offered as a way of life and thought and worship to many non-Catholic children who would have had only a cursory brush with it in a non-religious school. A joint school is likely to reflect more accurately the kind of multifaith, multi-cultural society and locality we now live in.
Being new, these establishments give a fresh sense of purpose to those who work in them; they are places where people constantly re-examine what religious schools are for, a debate in which governors, staff, chaplains, parents and the children are all engaged. They are ventures which warrant both vigilance and support. They are an exciting response to the changing times.
John Prangley is head of St Augustine of Canterbury's Joint Catholic-Anglican Upper School in Oxford.