On not being idiotic about church schools

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
15 May 2009

Paul Vallely and Giles Fraser have recently advanced exactly the same argument, about exactly the same issue, using exactly the same dismissive phrase, in exactly the same newspaper.

A conspiracy? If someone was as inclined as they appear to be to see conspiracies everywhere (in their case, secular ones), s/he might think so. But the routine overheated commentator’s temptation to use a handy insult ahead of complex engagement is probably a more reliable explanation. We’ve all been there, but it is not a healthy place.

Writing in the Church Times about church schools, both Giles ('How schools ought to discriminate') and Paul ('Beware the erosion of faith schools') suggest that those religious people who want to see an end to discriminatory admissions and employment policies are playing into the hands of ‘secularists’. They call people who don’t buy into this simple polarisation between believers and unbelievers ‘useful idiots’.

The phrase comes from Lenin, who used it about Soviet sympathisers in the West. Such people, Lenin said, naïvely thought they were Communist allies but actually they were luke-warm fellow travellers who were just being used to their own detriment.

To deploy this phrase in the context of the debate about church schools policy shows lack of attention to the facts and, ironically, a certain political naivete. Secularists (not all of whom are non-religious) cannot be grouped together under one heading any more than religious people (not all of whom define themselves in terms of the vested interests of religious institutions) can.

Hardline religionists and hardline secularists who refuse to acknowledge the diversity and variety of belief and non-belief, do not want their attempts to demolish (rather than find a way of living with) the ‘other’ complicated by the possibility of seeing and acting differently. But that does not seem to be a good reason for Giles and Paul to follow suit!

Both of them have had a go at (rather than facing the arguments of) Accord (www.accordcoalition.org.uk), a new, inclusive schooling coalition which seeks to challenge the simple pro- and anti- row about faith schools by articulating a practical reform agenda. This has the potential of bringing together people on both ‘sides’ to create a fresh and compelling dynamic for change.

Vallely and Fraser apparently do not want this. Nor do the spokespersons for faith schools providers, who mistakenly believe that defensive aggression is the best policy, rather than acknowledging the hurt and legitimacy of their critics. Nor does the National Secular Society, which has wrongly accused Accord of being ‘religion dominated’ and which wants these schools abolished rather than transformed into learning centres open to all – presumably because its sees its brand of secularism as inimical to all religious input.

Sound familiar? Yes, that is what many defenders of the church schools status quo say too, in their own way. They argue, extraordinarily, that ‘Christian values’ are inimical to fairness and open access. Or they talk of fairness, but act in favour of one group: their own. But this is to play an ideological game with Christianity, just as some play an ideological game with secularism.

Strangely, then, the ‘opposing sides’ end up playing exactly the same game. But the tragedy is that the ‘game’ is precisely the problem. Whether by accident or by design (probably a bit of both), it puts ideology before people, as Paul and Giles find themselves doing, in line with their unexpected exemplar, Lenin.

Both writers – whom we and others think have done marvellous work on a range of other issues – fail to notice that their chosen insult, ‘useful idiots’, could be seen as having an uncomfortable application to their own position on this one. Like Lenin, they want special privileges for the membership of their party, they attack and ridicule internal dissent and they think it is fine for state money to be taken from 100 per cent of the population in order to favour their 5 per cent - allegedly in the interests of ‘the people’ and ‘the common good’.

This is not just massively inconsistent. It is also hugely damaging to their cause. Those who want to maintain discriminatory policies for church schools are playing into the hands of those who say that the church does not know how to be fair, so abolition is the only policy. That, of course, is a non-starter. More dangerously (because more tangibly), therefore, Paul and Giles can also be seen – by their own logic – as playing into the hands of religious absolutists.

How? Because those who want to maintain unfair privileges for church schools find themselves allied with those who want opt-outs from equalities and anti-discrimination legislation in a whole range of additional areas. They are teamed up, like it or not, with those who work against inclusion, both inside and outside the church. That includes those who want schools to be able to teach creationism as science, those who oppose policies against homophobic bullying and some who even want to re-introduce corporal punishment. It also includes those opposing aspects of the Equality Bill currently before Parliament.

At least, that is what happens when the “if you are not uncritically for us you are really enemies” logic prevails. We do not think that is true, of course. But if it is, then it is as much a problem for ‘them’ as for ‘us’. Paul and Giles can’t go around claiming that other people may be treated as effectively saying ‘A’ if they do not say ‘B’, while applying entirely different laws of speech to themselves.

As for the rest of us, well, we recognise that, happily, there is a whole alphabet of possibilities that enable us to break out of sterile confrontation over issues like church schools and the relationship between religious, civic and state institutions – moving instead towards positive change and bridge-building. We do not have to be stuck with just A or B.

In short, in order to defend the indefensible (unfair discrimination – which is also, from a Christian point of view, unnecessary and wrong), Paul Vallely and Giles Fraser are falling into the tribal trap of dividing the world too readily into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secularists’.

Shrill cries of ‘secular conspiracy’, when all that is being asked for is justice and equal treatment, only reinforce false divisions and radicalise the more rejectionist elements in the church (and elsewhere) who thrive on conflict in order to further one-sided ‘solutions’.

The tribal approach prematurely polarises useful discussion, eclipses the issues of justice and amounts to poor theology. It also belies much else that Fraser and Vallely say and do. For example, Giles argues for an inclusive church, but then strangely appears to want exclusive church schools. Surely not?

Meanwhile, Paul lacerates those proposing faith school reform but has just written a column for Third Way magazine (‘Being reasonable’, June 2009) which ends by calling for “rational debate rather than high-octane dismissals of those with whom we do not agree.”

We could not concur more! So, as with church schools and their policies, we would just ask Paul and Giles to practice what they preach. It’s a struggle (we all need to share a certain ‘solidarity in sin’), but the gap between fine words and questionable actions is surely the real divide we all have an interest in overcoming if a wider good, and not just our own benefit, is the aim?

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(c) Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley, who were both involved in writing this, are co-directors of Ekklesia.

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