Faced with the necessity to make a speech at a school prize-giving recently I found myself reflecting on the purpose of education. Is it merely a device to enable our young to pass their examinations? Surely not. And does it end when they leave college? Surely not, again.
Watching my own children grow up (and now reaching what they — mistakenly — believe to be maturity) I remember the reflective observation made by my wife’s Godmother as she contemplated the increasing — the frightening — speed at which the years seem to pass as one grows older.
‘The Almighty’, she said, ‘Only lends parents their young.’
They bring with them joy and anxiety in rough equal doses: one moment they are (as Shakespeare wrote) mewling and puking in their nurse’s arm; the next they are wholly independent beings with ambitions and dreams and worries that are exclusively their own. Just as one gets used to them, they’re off to make their way in the world.
And what can we achieve for them in the brief time that they are ours to instruct? It is (in the old English sense of that word) an awful responsibility to tutor the young — and it is a sacred duty, also.
Above all, I hope for my children that they should learn to have enquiring minds, the ability to tell the true from the false; the courage, whatever today’s mores, to reject the unworthy, the insincere and the foolish. I hope they will spurn the contemporary vogue of cynicism which, led by too many irresponsible commentators, is fast becoming the daily norm.
A healthy scepticism is one thing. Constant denigration of achievement and of sincerely held beliefs and standards is quite another, and I deplore it.
If modern society’s values leave much to be desired maybe it is our fault for not practising or professing something better. Teaching is all example.
Education of our youth is too important a matter to be left in the exclusive hands of secular teachers. We must all join in.
And is it only the young who need continuous education? I think we all need it.
And time always runs out sooner than we anticipate.
Mortal life is a short span.
In the British Parliament we open our proceedings each day with prayer. My perceptive friend Canon Beeson, Mr Speaker’s Chaplain, once had to answer the cynical observation of an observer who commented that considering the parlous state of the British economy at that time the prayers of M.P.s seemed to be pretty ineffective.
‘Consider’ that wise priest replied, ‘how much worse it might be if no prayers were offered.’
Consider how an anarchic society would certainly become if the majority failed to order their private lives and their daily conduct in accordance with high standards of integrity and simple honesty.
I have always believed, like Wordsworth, that we should so live as to serve ‘the future hour’; that is, to leave one small part of the world better (if we can) for the work we do in it while we live.
And that, I believe, is exactly in accordance with the Christian philosophy — and other philosophies too.
The vagaries of the calendar prescribed that the Christian festival of Easter fell late this year, so the Easter Service is still fresh in my mind.
Many people, as Mr Speaker’s Chaplain then reminded us, find the Easter story attractive and comforting because of the assurance it offers about life after death. It is one of the fundamental Christian convictions that we shall share in Christ’s experience after death and live forever in the closest communion with God.
I am no theologian, but I am sure that it would be a distortion of the Christian doctrine to suppose that its concern is merely to prepare men and women for death (and the paradise that lies beyond the grave) and that it has no interest in this earthly life.
Our duty surely is to live a full and creative life in the here and now.
On Easter Day my family and I and our neighbours, as we do each year in our local Church, prayed in succession for the Queen, for the Clergy, for Parliament (there’s a deserving subject if ever there was one) and last but most appropriately in today’s context, for those who practise their religion in circumstances of difficulty and danger.
Every year, all my adult life, I have joined in that prayer. Many times, as I have travelled the world as a Minister in Government, as a businessman, as a private citizen, I have seen those who practise their faiths under difficulties and admired what they do. Then, comfortably at home again, it is all out of sight and out of mind. This year that prayer came vividly alive for me as I thought of the work of this year’s Templeton Prize winner, the Rev. Michael Bourdeaux. I shall not again forget.
Here is a man with the wit to separate the true from the false, a man of courage, a modest man, a man with an inquiring mind, a man who by his devotion to a single cause has brought to innumerable people (one will never know to how many tens or hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands) that most precious of all commodities — Hope.
‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’ wrote Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man.
Maybe: but hope cannot flourish forever in darkness.
Despair will inevitably succeed as hope dies.
Those who keep their faith alive in circumstances of difficulty or severe personal risk desperately need our prayers. Michael Bourdeaux, I feel, is a practical answer to them. His message is that those who suffer for their faith are not forgotten and they will not be forgotten.
The award of this Templeton Prize to him is a further answer to our prayers. As a result, Michael Bourdeaux’s work is now more widely known than it ever has been. We must all hope and pray that the result of the advertisement of his devotion will be increasing public support for the painstaking work carried out at Keston College.
As O’Shaughnessy wrote over a century ago in his poem ‘The Music Makers’:
‘One man with a dream, . . .
Shall go forth and conquer a crown And three, with a new song’s measure,
Can trample a kingdom down.’
When Elgar set those words to music he wished his setting of the ode to be an inspiration for all who feel the tremendous responsibility of their mission to ‘renew the world’.
Renew the world we should indeed.
It is wholly inconsistent with the dignity of man that he should not be universally free to practise his chosen faith, without hindrance or discouragement or penalty.
Compulsory atheism is an affront to any civilised society. It is intolerable that young people in any country should grow up ignorant of religious teachings and faith.
One day the barriers will be broken down. One day all men will be free. Pray God this will be achieved by peaceful means.
If it comes about it will happen chiefly, I am sure, by reason of example, the example we all try to set in our own lives that in freedom there is a better way.
Modern communications, the speed at which new opportunities for intercourse between individuals and peoples are being introduced may be another answer to our prayers. Maybe the barriers are already yielding. Maybe — but who knows what the future will bring.
Meantime we have work to do. Of one thing we can be absolutely sure, Michael Bourdeaux’s faith and applications are a certainty which those who are alone and those who long for reassurance can attach themselves to and draw inspiration from.
Read his books, if you will, if you have not already done so.
You will comprehend why he writes in the first pages of his book ‘Risen Indeed’ these words —
‘suffering lies at the heart of the Gospel. Without the crucifixion there can be no resurrection’.
In his introduction to that book Lord Coggan wrote:
‘People like ourselves, who live in countries where there is a complete freedom of religion, freedom of expression and lack of persecution, find it hard to imagine what life is like for great numbers of Christians and others who believe that those things matter but who live under regimes which hate and despise them.’
There are many such regimes, alas.
‘Suffering’ Michael Bourdeaux has said ‘deepens and repairs faith. Out of it has come a joy and a commitment which Christians elsewhere so often lack. The worse the suffering, the more intense their experience.’
Certainly we who live in freedom, and are most fortunate to do so, do take its blessings much for granted. If Bourdeaux’s work has any validity in free societies it is to remind us that we have an especial duty to use that freedom to refresh our faith in our own chosen religion and to educate others.
Those who live in bondage trust us to use our freedom constructively. To do otherwise is to betray that trust.
Do we lack commitment? Some of us may, but Bourdeaux certainly does not.
He does well to remind us that freedom imposes duties on the free.
He has had the courage to carve out the work of his life in response to his own vision of duty. We applaud his judgment and we thank him for stabbing awake our consciences.
Let us hope that the words in the Revelation of St. John the Divine prove prescient:
Now is come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God . . . for the accuser of our brethren is cast down. . . .
That too is our prayer. But it will not happen of itself. It will need the dedication and commitment of every one of us.
Education then, in its broadest sense, is a lifetime’s career: first, to seek the truth, then to help others young and older ones alike to find it, cherish it, and practise it.
That is what Michael Bourdeaux has so wonderfully taught us.