Ben John comments on whether Christians should imitate the strictly secular ethos of Michaela School
Michaela School and Katherine Birbalsingh (the so-called strictest headteacher in Britain) have been in the news this week as a Muslim pupil takes the school to the High Court for allegedly banning prayers.
The policy is being challenged as an alleged infringement on freedom of religion. Sarah Hannett KC argued in court, representing the student, that the policy of no formal, physical prayers has the “practical effect of only preventing Muslims from praying, because their prayer by nature has a ritualised nature rather than being internal.”
Bomb threats and pressure
The school’s policy has been met with opposition from Muslim students and Muslims in the area. The school has been met with harassment, and an online campaign. Glass bottles were thrown over the school railings and a brick thrown through one teacher’s window. The school’s barrister stated in court that staff were left “fearing for their lives.”
There was even a bomb threat for which police were called, which led to the school closing two days early at the end of term and hiring a security guard.
This is reminiscent of other areas where there have been aggressive protests by Muslims because of the alleged ‘Islamophobia.’ One teacher from Batley Grammar School is still in hiding following threats to his life after he had shown a cartoon of Muhammad in an RE lesson.
The school had argued for the case to be heard privately and for the name of the school not to be published, fearing the possibility that it could create hostile pressure on, and possibly endanger, the school and staff. However, Justice Linden ruled that the details were allowed to be made public.
The pressure of multiculturalism
This saga, whatever the result, again shows the unsustainable pressures that come from multiculturalism.
Whilst we can admire Birbalsingh for standing firm in the face of threats and harassment, her appeal to multiculturalism to defend the policy does not work.
As she wrote in her statement on Twitter:
“our school must be a place where children of all races and religions buy into something they all share and that is bigger than themselves: our country.”
She is repeating the common idea that education is a secular or neutral space. The reality is that she is imposing her own religion where country comes before religion. She is trying to foster a culture in her school based on her own worldview. That is fine for her to do so, but it is not a neutral culture. There can be no neutrality in education.
The myth of multiculturalism says that all cultures can get along fine on equal terms. But as she herself admits, that cannot work unless there is something bigger; and that ‘something bigger’ is ultimately, therefore, what that culture worships. That is why we have previously critiqued multiculturalism.
The school should be allowed to keep its policy. The Muslim students would presumably be able to find a different school that allows them to pray. But Michaela School’s appeal to multiculturalism is unsustainable. We should long for Michaela School and Katherine Birbalsingh (and the Muslim students) to turn to the Lord, who is the source of wisdom, knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:6)
Many modern Christians have assumed that education is a secular/neutral sphere that really doesn’t have anything to do with religion.
What Michaela’s vision for education is saying is that:
- Country comes before faith
- Secularism is safer than Christianity
- Make sacrifices for education, not for your faith
But what is bigger than worship of the Lord of the universe?
Education is not a separate space but comes under Christ’s Lordship. It should be a place to aid our worship of God.
Birbalsingh said in her statement “Those from all religions make sacrifices so that we can maintain a safe secular community… I will never separate children according to race and religion.”
This attitude towards religion is alien to the Christian worldview. She is implying here that practising the Christian faith is not safe!
Sadly, far too many Christian children are discipled into this mindset that says education is more important than faith; that God has nothing to say about our education. And then we are surprised when they go to university and they do not get stuck into a church. As Martin Davie has recently written “from a Christian perspective what is harmful to human beings is anything that prevents them from living in the way that God created them to live.” A safe, secular community is an oxymoron if it hinders Christian discipleship.
We cannot slip into thinking religion is just another category along with race. Ultimately, we are defined by our worship and our culture shows us what we worship. We either worship the Triune God of the Bible or we are idolaters, worshipping something in creation (Romans 1). Theologian Henry van Til said “culture is religion externalised”; culture is fundamentally religious, not racial or ethnic, and this flows out into every area of life.
No doubt Michaela School can be admired for its excellent academic results. And we can admire Ms Birbalsingh for her stand in the face of pressure from Muslims, and we can hope that the school is successful. But let us Christians not be distracted and assume that this is how a Christian school should operate. In fact, Birbalsingh gives the example, in her statement, of how Christians in the school have had to tolerate having revision classes occasionally on a Sunday. This is considered just part of the cost of being in the school for the greater good. But that reinforces the lie that education and academic results are more important than faithfulness to God. It is great to achieve excellent academic results but at what cost?
A Christian vision of education would see the worship of God as central to schools. Students should understand their education in the context of knowing God, the creator and sustainer of all things. We want our children to be discipled to say “I will make sacrifices in order to follow Jesus”. They should be encouraged to work hard and pursue excellence but to know that academic results are not everything and do not define our value and worth. We want our children to know “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26a ESV).
That is why we are working hard to support Christian school-planting.
We should not prioritise academic achievement, which is good and noble, over bringing them up in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 ESV). The only way to do this is for Christian schools, ones that do not place “multiculturalism” over the worship of the One True God.