At long last the Church of England has set out what is means by a "Christian ethos". Until now it has been a rather malleable and ethereal concept. It is what all church schools are supposed to have. It is also what the church claims will disappear if non-Christians are appointed to key teaching posts or schools admit too many children who do not pass the church attendance test.
The "Christian ethos" now has a virtual form. It appears on a new website (http://www.christianvalues4schools.co.uk) with a video message from the Archbishop of Canterbury. There it is unpacked as a list of 15 values including "humility", "compassion" and "forgiveness"
There is even one in New Testament Greek. Each is accompanied by an explanation and a bit of theological justification for good measure.
As the church struggles to work out for itself, let alone communicate to others, what exactly it has which is distinctive, the principles that it specifies could make a real educational difference – if only they can be delivered in practise. Values mean very little unless they are incarnated. It is through behaviour, not mission statements, that we truly see what an institution is all about.
Yet the values it has spelled out put the church in a rather awkward position, because the behaviour of their schools is clearly at odds with at least one stated aspiration – "justice". Elaborating on what "justice" means for its schools, the Church of England talks about: "acting out of a concern for what is right and seeing right prevail…especially for those who suffer most and are least able to protect themselves." It stresses that: "justice is not about a culture which encourages everyone to insist on their own rights at the expense of others. It is about a community that knows that everyone's well-being is bound up with that of everyone else." It even quotes the Bible: "In Exodus, the people are instructed to deal with everyone fairly and never to show partiality to one group above another."
So how exactly does the church square "never showing partiality", "dealing with everyone fairly" and "not insisting on their own rights at the expense of others" with discriminatory admissions and employment policies which prioritise church children over non-church attenders and refuse to allow non-Christians to apply for jobs? It tries to claim itself as a "special case", but to most people this will be seen as special pleading. In reality, discriminatory practises undermine and contradict the very Christian ethos they are supposed to protect.
It is time to end church exemptions from equalities legislation – and not just because they are unjust. Close to one third of primaries are church schools, while regular church attendance is only somewhere in the region of 5 – 10 per cent of the population. Significant proportions of church schools do not have a Christian head teacher, let alone Christian staff, in "key" positions in their schools. Similarly, it is the oversubscribed church schools which discriminate in admissions. Many do not have the majority of their pupils coming from church-going families. But in all such cases, the church still claims that a "Christian ethos" can exist. So discrimination is not only incompatible with a Christian ethos and with natural justice. It is also demonstrably unnecessary.
I am not against schools being supported by church, community or civic groups. I want to see religious foundation schools made better – turned into good examples of community education, not (as in too many cases) poor or reluctant ones. That means seeing church schools demonstrate that they are Christian in the best possible way. Not in terms of narrow religiosity, but with restorative discipline policies that work and with inclusion practices that welcome everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.
Church schools should stand out because they take more than their "fair share" of looked-after children and those with special educational needs, because local authorities recognise how such children will benefit and so place them there. They should be schools that teach children peace-building, forgiveness and respect for other people's creeds and values. As the church clearly recognises, these are the kinds of things Jesus stood for. These are the things that could make church schools exemplary.
So let us see if the church can walk the talk. If it is serious about practising what it preaches, a good start would be to meet with those parents whose children have been prevented from attending their local school because they do not go to church. The next step would be table amendments to the recently introduced equalities bill to bring an end to the exemptions which permit its schools to act contrary to very values on which they are supposed to be based.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This is adapted from an article which appeared on the Guardian's Comment-is-Free website, with acknowledgments.
More from Ekklesia on church schools and on the Accord Coalition for inclusive schoooling, of which it is a founding member, here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/accord
Join the debate about Christian values, church schools and the C of E's recent statement here: http://www.christianvaluesforschools.co.uk