I've spent the last couple of weeks in Australia, visiting friends and generally enjoying the good weather and the great food.
One of the friends I visited is a teacher and she's working at a school in Brisbane with a very interesting background. Knowing it was a private school, I asked her which faith it was established by and I was really surprised by her answer, "It's ecumenical. It's both Catholic and Anglican." She has only worked there for one year so she was a little sketchy on the details but she thinks it was originally founded by Catholics and then it merged with an Anglican school and became ecumenical (and private).
My mind spun for the rest of the evening as I thought this over. What an interesting idea… if we followed suit in NZ, we could have some pretty well-resourced schools! Think about merging with a school like St Peter's Anglican School in Cambridge – complete with their stables, one-to-one laptops, state of the art classrooms etc.
I asked my friend to show me around her school, and as she did I fired off the many questions that had occured to me. As she answered them, I quickly discovered that, in reality, this is an idea that just doesn't work.
"So how does the ecumenical thing work… what do you teach about the Pope for example?" "We don't really teach about him at all. It just doesn't come up. But if one of the kids wanted to do a research project about him, we wouldn't have a problem with that."
"It's called 'John Paul College'… so do you teach the kids about JP II?" "Nope, I don't even know who he is… was he a saint?"
"What about prayer times in your classroom? How does that work? Like the 'Hail Mary', is that allowed?" "No, we don't pray in class at all."
"Do you pray before staff meetings?" "Definitely not!"
"So what about Masses? Or do you have Ecumenical services?" "I'm not really sure. We don't have a chapel big enough for the whole school but once a term we all get together outside for some kind of service. I don't know if it's Mass or not."
"Do you have RE lessons?" "No, it's just sort of integrated into whatever we're teaching."
"So, did you have to get trained up on the Bible etc." (My friend has never belonged to any religion) "No, but there is someone we can ask if we need to."
"Is there a priest on site?" "There was but he's just retired and we have some other guy now. I don't think he's a priest, I'm not really sure. The kids just call him Tom."
"So, how do you get in? Do you have to have some link to the Church like in NZ?" "No, anyone can come as long as they can afford the fees."
As I walked around I noticed very, very little that stuck out as labelling the school as Christian. There was a blue wooden cross hanging in each class, and really that was about it. No prayer tables, no RE displays, no liturgical colours, no pictures of saints. Looking at their website is also quite telling. You can see that the school was set up with very good intentions. The explanation about the crest (with Christ as its centre) and the motto (unity, christ, learning) both show that the school was established with the idea of providing Christ-centred education. But unfortunately Christ isn't mentioned anywhere else on the site. The principal's welcome, the strategic plan, the FAQs – none of it even mentions religion or Christ at all.
This is also an incredibly well-resourced school. Think big, beautiful buildings, manicured grounds, swimming pools, two cricket ovals, tennis courts etc. But no chapel. Priorities huh?
The only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere along the way (perhaps when they merged with the Anglican School, or perhaps when they started charging $8000 per year to attend) this is a school that was once a strong Catholic school, that is now nothing more than a private school with a Christian history.
My friend told me that before the priest retired he came and talked to the staff about not losing the history of the school and about the original vision. I can absolutely see why he would want to do this, but I think he was fighting a lost cause.