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Food for the soul

As the new term gets under way, former Head, Sarah Thomas, looks at the need for us all to explore our spirituality and find a way to feed our souls.

James Norton, thankfully appearing again on our television screens on Sunday evenings in Grantchester, this week spoke about how he felt television did too little to portray faith in a positive light and tended, instead, to focus on either exorcisms or cults. I suppose we should not be surprised on any level, neither that a man who read Theology at Cambridge and was attracted to playing the part of a vicar should raise such a view, nor that television has taken the popular, currently fashionable and, I think, lazy approach to what is by any measure one of the most important areas of our world.

When I was a little girl I went to a convent school and then, at 11, to an avowedly secular school. The Catholicism of the mid '60s was, for me, a puzzle. It involved my class polishing our own desks (because no one else did) and raising money for the starving children in Biafra (a country whose location no one bothered to explain). Vatican 2 meant the Mass was in English and catechisms went out of the window. Then my 11+ school, Birkenhead High School GPDST, taught me that being non denominational meant notices, hymns (admittedly rather better ones than the Catholic versions), a reading and prayer once a week. All in all, it was a bit ‘meh’.

Having spent the years following my mother’s sudden death when I was 11 forgetting all I ever knew of religion or belief, and actively avoiding church, I then taught at Uppingham, where Chapel is at the centre of the school and where the Chaplain, Alan Megahey (the master of the three-minute sermon), and a tradition of superb Chapel music did something totally unexpected: they drew me back to the idea of faith through a sense of belonging. 

So I believe schools have a real part to play in allowing pupils to explore their spirituality. By all means we should also teach ecumenical approaches and remove ignorance about world religions. But if we are to prepare our children to be happy in their world, we should, in my view, also allow them to consider the issue of faith both intellectually (who shouldn’t be exposed to credibile est quia ineptum est?) and emotionally. Our lives need mystery. Faith is one way of exploring what we cannot immediately understand; science and philosophy others. I believe all those elements deserve proper consideration and none should be pooh poohed. At Bryanston, our pupils are encouraged and supported to discover their own personal spiritual fuel in a number of ways, for example through one of the diverse extra-curricular activities, the breadth of curricular and sporting options, or through discussions with the Chaplain, who meets with Ds (year 9) once a week in Chapel to prepare them for that freedom of choice in worship which is the normal Bryanston pattern. And, whatever their faith, the Chapel provides pupils a place of warmth and peace for private prayer or simply somewhere to be quiet.

I’m on record in various places as saying I cannot imagine carrying out the role of Head without having my own, often rickety, faith. The idea that there is not something more important than my current preoccupations (which are more than occasionally solipsistic) fills me with gloom; part of keeping my mental well-being on a nearly even keel is attending church and being refreshed weekly, either at the school church with the remarkable Andrew Haviland leading our lively worship, or when I’m on holiday in the still more august setting of Bath Abbey. I’ll never understand what or exactly why I believe, but communion with friends and weekly ritual certainly fills my tank. I know it’s fashionable to sneer at this, as though it were an embarrassing weakness, but I am long past caring what people think of me, certainly in terms of how clever or not they think I am. I do what works for me. And I do my best.

If you can’t do something like this at least weekly then I think it’s harder to fill that tank. You might get your fuel from music, drama, sport, some or all of which can touch the soul at a deep level. You might satisfy that need for mystery through the world of archaeology or molecular biology or neuroscientific study, thereby seeing yourself as the speck in human existence that we each are. You might have the strength of intellect to find this sustenance entirely from humanism. I take my hat off to you if you do especially when you are in extremis. For some, meditation might help (though recent research suggests that’s much more likely if you are female). But for me, the most sincere and immediate way to find sense and hope in life is through trying to make sense of my faith. 

So let’s take on board what Mr Norton says and do our bit in school to keep our children educated and emotionally fed with faith, curiosity, and mystery.