The Church of England isn’t trying to infiltrate FE colleges in some secret plan, as suggested by two secularists, writes Nigel Gender
Further education institutions transform lives by preparing people to enter the workplace, go on to further study, retrain or change careers and provide the skilled workforce we need for the future.
Their importance is affirmed in the Church of England’s recently published vision for FE Vocation, Transformation & Hope, which talks about the ways the Church wants to be more involved in FE colleges.
Colleges are communities strengthened by staff and students of all faiths and beliefs working and learning together. It is right that our ambitious aim to build a family of Church of England FE colleges should be subject to proper consideration.
So what’s in it for us? Quite simply, an opportunity to serve, and to meet a genuine need.
Our experience gives us something distinctive and important to offer – we have been an education provider at a national level for nearly 200 years.
The Church of England provided a free education some 70 years before the state, and today runs almost 5,000 schools in partnership with local authorities and trusts. We’re also involved with universities and teacher-training institutions.
Of course, we also have much to learn. The Bishop of Durham acknowledged recently that the Church of England itself must become younger and therefore do more to engage with younger people.
An article in FE Week last week by the National Secular Society rather bizarrely tried to argue that this was part of some secret plan.
On the contrary, we are unapologetic about seeking to engage with and serve a new generation, as this is what we have always done.
Suggestions that spiritual guidance and support offered by chaplaincies is either unwanted or a niche provision also miss the mark.
A recent ComRes poll showed that almost half of adults (44 per cent) say they pray. And one in four people pray regularly (at least once a month) ̶ a number that has increased six percentage points since a pre-pandemic survey.
Positive responses are even higher in the 18-to-34 age group, with 30 per cent saying they pray regularly, and 34 per cent having watched a broadcast religious service during the pandemic.
By this measure, the idea that faith has no place in modern society is decidedly pre-pandemic in its worldview, especially among younger age groups.
Staff and students don’t leave their faith or beliefs at the college gates
Staff and students don’t leave their faith or beliefs at the college gates. They face the same questions about their lives and their purpose as anyone else, encountering grief and loss, joy and success, celebration and mourning.
So while chaplains will share some ground with counsellors, support officers and others providing pastoral care, they have a unique role in helping students and staff to explore those areas that have a spiritual dimension.
That’s why we are challenging our own church to engage much more systematically in this sector that educates over 2 million people every year.
This will mean more chaplains working with their FE college and local diocese to offer more coordinated support.
Colleges have valued the contribution of chaplaincies in providing pastoral support for students, working alongside student services, linking colleges with communities, contributing to curriculum enrichment, religious literacy and to good relations on campus.
Meanwhile, far from constraining what is taught, theological insight can enable a lively and holistic approach to forming the curriculum and the values which underpin it.
Our recommendations are simply about doing more of what we already know works; reaching out to all those who are trying to serve the common good, to tackle injustice and, in the current phrase, to build back better from the pandemic.
We do so from our profound conviction that everyone is a person of value, made in the image of God, and that society urgently needs that sense of human dignity and worth to be embodied in all our social institutions.
Among these we count our own church, and are determined that it too will become younger and more diverse.