Op-Ed: Faith schools don’t need to be divisive, but can be a place to celebrate what we have in common
The Council of Christians and Jews was established in 1942 at a tragic time when the Jewish world was being decimated by an ideology defined by hatred. As we struggled to deal with the devastation and grief of the Holocaust, the CCJ lit a flare of hope for what the future might hold. If we could somehow survive the most sophisticated campaign ever conceived to wipe out an entire people, perhaps we could find peace in a society defined not by enmity and difference, but by mutual respect and admiration.
We succeeded, not without exception, but broadly speaking. One of the most famous extracts from the Psalms provides the theme for the CCJ’s 75th anniversary celebrations this year: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
Now, however, we are starting to see prejudice and hatred rear their ugly heads once more, so it is time again to light the way to a more tolerant society. I recently heard the historian Simon Schama remark that there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who are happy to live and engage with people who are not like themselves and those who are not. Sadly there is truth in what he says.
But I believe that there is a third way. People are instinctively proud and protective of their own belief system. I believe in a set of fundamental Jewish precepts which are at the very core of my identity. Yet, this is “particular” to me and to the Jewish people, and I have no wish to impose this ideology and way of life upon others.
I feel no less proud of the “universal” values embraced by my religion; values to which I wholeheartedly subscribe and which similarly define me: that all who are created in the image of God should be treated with respect and dignity, that they should be granted the freedom to make their own unique and positive contributions to the world and be offered the protection they need to do so by the rule of law.
There is an essential balance to be struck between our “particular” and our “universal” values. Too much of a focus on the particular will trap us into a blinkered, self-absorbed existence, which provides a fertile breeding ground for intolerance. Yet too much focus on universal values will lead to an erosion of our very identity.
This challenge is well illustrated by the debate around faith schools. Some argue that single faith schools create silos in which pupils, unable to interact with those of other backgrounds, become culturally isolated. This is undoubtedly true in some cases. But the best faith schools I have encountered strike a balance. They are unashamedly particular, creating a uniquely religious, immersive ethos in which prayer, festivals and tradition permeate every aspect of school life. Yet, they also champion universal values by ensuring that students play a significant, constructive role in the wider community and have regular opportunities for interaction with students of a similar age, of all faiths and none.
I am particularly proud to attend in Glasgow today the opening of the first British campus on which two primary schools, one Jewish and one Catholic, have settled. Calderwood Lodge and St Clare’s Primary will both retain the particular values of their faith which make them unique and which strengthen their cultural identities but together, in a £17m, state-of-the-art facility, they will also celebrate what they have in common.
Those Jewish and Catholic children will grow up, proud of who they are and the beauty of their faith, together with deep respect for each other. I cannot imagine a more perfect example of what I believe the future can hold for faith communities in this country.
I recall a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he remarked that, during his tenure, he wishes to achieve things that his successor’s successor will be thankful for. When Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz and Archbishop William Temple launched CCJ together 75 years ago, they created something that we still treasure generations later. My aspiration for the next chapter in the history of this great organisation is for its renewed mission of cultivating the balance between our particular and universal values to strengthen our respective communities for generations to come.