In August this year, the University of Nottingham blocked the appointment of a Catholic chaplain because of the way he had “expressed” his Catholic beliefs. The would-be chaplain in question, Fr David Palmer, a vocal pro-life advocate and, shall we say, vivid tweeter was given the boot for describing abortion as the “slaughter of babies” and assisted suicide as “killing the vulnerable”.
A university spokesperson, while trying to extricate the university from its intellectual 6×6 graveyard plot, explained that it was not Fr Palmer’s opinions that were the problem, but the language used to express them. This peculiar episode is a stark reminder that religious values have been in effect excommunicated from the public sphere by a secular, soi-disant tolerant, morality.
But even as the University of Nottingham ties itself in knots playing linguistic Twister, the importance of schools as vectors of religious education and values cannot be underestimated.
Looking back on my school days, there was much good and much to be grateful for. But as I am regularly reminded by the man who paid for it, my school had a rather shaky commitment to God – that in spite of its proclaimed ethos and its locale, nestled as it was in the grounds of a cathedral.
The head chaplain was a great chap, funny, well-rounded, but better suited to striding across lawns at a garden party or jesting on a panel show than to nurturing the faith of his charges. So much so in fact that he was kicked out of the school’s Bible reading group for not taking it sufficiently seriously, or so the story went.
One cathedral school’s shocker aside, there are good chaplains out there.
As they go, Fr David Rocks at the Reading Oratory makes a lasting impression. Donning the Dominican habit in 2002, he joined the priesthood in 2010 and has worked in Leicester, as prior and priest, in which capacity he had a significant hand in the discovery and reinterment of Richard III. Working at two universities, he has had enormous amounts of experience as a chaplain. Added to that, his Dominican credentials work well in the context of a school whose founding motto is “Heart speaks to heart.” St John Henry Newman’s words chime perfectly with that of Rocks’ order, Contemplata aliis tradere – to pass on to others the fruit of contemplation.
But what more than a chaplain makes a good chaplaincy?
Beating the drum of inclusivity is standard practice in these divided times. More than that, the UK’s top chaplaincies make the effort to imbue every aspect of education with their religious ethos.
Among non-Catholic institutions, Eton and Harrow stand out.
As well as teaching theology and philosophy, Harrow’s chaplains are heavily involved in the school’s co-curricular activities.
Fr Nic Tivey (Anglican) coaches Harrow’s football 1st XI. His Catholic counterpart Fr Stuart Seaton, a trained organist, is more involved in the musical side of life at the school.
Harrow’s commitment to the best interests of its Catholic students is impressive. As many other schools do, it provides the opportunity for confession and confirmation, but it also provides weekly Catechism classes for Catholic pupils throughout their years at the school.
For all intents and purposes, Eton is almost a Catholic school. As Will Heaven observed in the Spectator some three years ago, you are more likely to find the great Catholic families like the Welds, Petres, Stonors, Stourtons, Throckmortons there than at any Catholic school.
Its St Nicholas Society (the Catholic Society) offers parents the opportunity to be involved in Eton’s Catholic community. The school’s royal founder Henry VI was born on 6 December, which is St Nick’s feast day, hence the society name. Having merged with the Old Etonian Catholic Association in the late 1960s, the society ensures that instruction is given in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
At the prime minister’s alma mater, the Anglican chaplain states: “The incarnate ministry of chaplaincy in all aspects of school life has an osmotic effect… preparing the boys for the difficult times and displaying the accessible nature of the Christian faith, as a place of refuge and forgiveness.”
Similarly, St Edmund’s College, Ware (founded as the English College at Douai in penal times), instils Catholic values into all its pupils, Catholic or otherwise, fully committing to Catholic education, rather than education for Catholics. It provides an all-round religious education preparing its students’ mind, body and soul for adulthood.
Catholic schools across the country pride themselves on putting social teaching into action. At St Edmund’s, Fr Peter Lyness and trained RE teacher Paula Peirce run a tight ship, working closely with the boarding community and offering a quiet place to talk should pupils need it.
Many schools give their pupils a push out the door for contemplative retreats and trips, but St Ed’s chaplaincy offers an impressive number of opportunities to engage with the local community – by assisting at CAFOD economy lunches, supporting food banks and serving Christmas meals to the elderly.
And what is faith without deed?
Correction: Fr Stuart Seaton was previously and incorrectly described as a member of the ordinariate.
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