Monday, 23 July 2012 10:14

Preaching the Gospel without words

“Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary”. This quote, attributed to St Francis of Assisi, sounds like a rebuke to Church press officers everywhere – how are we supposed to preach the Gospel if we can’t issue a press release? I’m not sure that the BBC would be terribly happy if next time they asked us for a comment we had to point out that we couldn’t say anything, because we preach the Gospel without words. Only we couldn’t even say that, because in doing so, we’d have to use words. It looks like we have an impossible task!

Publicising the work of the Church might appear to run contrary to what we, as Christians, ought to be doing. Aren’t we supposed to avoid hype and publicity, to do our good works in secret and not for the acclamation that we hope to receive? Well yes, but we’re also supposed to speak up about injustice, and to do that in a 24-hour news age means that we have to have some media credibility. This might seem like something that only those who’ve done murky deals with News International can hope to obtain, but the truth is much simpler than that. And, actually, I suspect it shows that St Francis had a point.

Catholic schools are probably the greatest contribution that the Church has made to British society in the last 200 years. We all know the facts: they represent 10% of the schools in England and Wales, educate over 800,000 pupils every year and consistently outperform other schools in terms of their academic attainment. However, plenty of people outside the Catholic community don’t know the facts, and that’s where gaining good media credibility comes in.

When was the last time that your local MP visited your parish’s primary school? Or your local councillors? Our political decision-makers have a huge amount of power and their votes, whether locally or nationally, can determine which building projects get funded, which schools are able to expand and what subjects ought to be taught on the National Curriculum. Now clearly, Catholic schools are, by and large, doing a really good job. They take pupils from a range of different social and cultural backgrounds and enable them to pass exams and take on active roles in society. Our schools ought to be the first places that politicians visit when they want to see what good quality education is all about. This doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should, but we can all do something about that!

First, we need to engage with our local politicians. We shouldn’t assume that everyone else is as well-versed in Catholic education as we are, because whilst 10% of the country’s schools are Catholic, 90% aren’t and so there are a lot of people who have never set foot in a Catholic school. So let’s invite them in to see what we’re doing. The councillors could join us for an assembly, or the local MP could speak to one of our classes about Parliament. Then they’ll see the range of children we educate, the level of engagement we have with our local communities (and beyond) and the excellent academic opportunities we provide. Next time they have to vote on something relating to education, they might remember that visit to the Catholic school in their constituency and it might help to influence how they vote.

Secondly, always make sure that the local paper reports the visit by inviting local journalists in or sending them a press release. That helps to remind the local community what an important contribution their local Catholic school is making and next time there’s a public consultation about, for example, removing the bus to the local Catholic school, people living locally might be more supportive of the school. 

Building credibility with local politicians and the local press isn’t difficult and it is important. If we want to see Catholic schools preserved for the future, we need to make sure that they have the support not just of Catholics, but also of politicians and the wider community. When we’re making a positive difference to our local community, we need to make sure that people see that. Or, put another way, we need to preach the Gospel, mostly without words.

Maeve McCormack is a governor at a Catholic primary school and was formerly the Public Affairs Manager at the Catholic Education Service.

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