The Human Imperative of Episcopal Education

Candles for NewtownThe following comments are taken from a keynote address at the 1st Annual St. James Forum, “Episcopal Schools: Touching Hearts, Empowering Lives” held on February 22 at St. James School in Philadelphia. St. James School is a tuition-free Episcopal middle school and a member of the Episcopal Urban School Alliance.

Educational literature today is filled with talk about testing and core standards, and sadly also about police presence in schools and lock down drills. But it is also filled with ideas about small schools, community building, values, and a moral education. And at the heart of this reform movement is really a very simple idea: to create schools where each person is valued, honored, and held in human dignity. These are intangible qualities that exemplary schools all share: academic excellence undergirded by a sense of purpose and belonging.

Of course there remain challenges and struggles, questioning and self-doubt, the hard work and uphill battles that each of us must confront. But to navigate each of the struggles and joys of what it means to be a human being and to do it in a place that ultimately says, “I know you, I love you, you are important” is a gift. The Book of Isaiah reads, “I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…because you are precious in my sight.”

Way back in the 1990s, Tom Sergioivanni, a professor at Trinity University in Austin Texas, wrote about moral leadership in schools. He views the task of school reform, private well as public, as one of transforming schools from organizations into communities – for communities, says Sergioivanni, speak in a moral voice and lay claim to their members. Only in this way can learning come alive. Most importantly only in this way can children become grounded, centered, strong and yet compassionate. Yes, school is a sacred enterprise.

This is the incarnational ministry of Episcopal schools: to show our children the richness which is in and all around them. To give them strength, courage, security, not to live as islands unto themselves, trapped in the egocentrism embodied in an idolatry of false wealth, but to live in relation to others with generosity, love, and endurance.

Episcopal schools are one of the Episcopal Church’s most vibrant and relevant ministries today. Just about 1,200 Episcopal schools serve approximately 160,000 students throughout the provinces of the Episcopal Church. Almost 500 of these schools are elementary and middle parish day schools. They serve kids from rich families and middle class families and families that struggle to make ends meet, if at all. They serve Christians of all kinds, and children of all faiths, and children of no faith at all across a broad human spectrum of race, culture, and ethnicity.

Each life touched is like a pebble in a pond: the student who goes on to be a student leader;  the young person who develops a lifelong capacity for compassion; the trajectory of an entire family forever changed by a quality education; the hundreds of graduates over the lifetime of a school who bring a sense of community, purpose, and inner strength to whatever they do. 
I am reminded of words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s wonderful poem Ulysses: “Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world and follow knowledge like a sinking star.” 
New worlds and possibilities. This is why Episcopal schools are so important. Because here we listen for the echo of God’s voice, because we know there is more than our human eye can see, our human hands can shape, our minds can predict. 

Isaiah tell us “to break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron” and find  “riches hidden in secret places”: the beauty of the mind, a wholeness of spirit, possibilities greater than any we could imagine, and perhaps even the hand of God.

“I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you
I will say to the north ‘give them up’ and to the south ‘do not withhold’
Bring my sons from far away and my daughters form the end of the earth.
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them and hear and say it is true.”

Isaiah Chapter 43