Commemoration of John Lyon Founder of Harrow School, St Mary’s Harrow on the Hill

8 October 2007 at :00 am

2 Tim 1: 1-14; Luke 17: 5-10

To our eyes, life was pretty brutal in England. In the same year, 1572, a decree of Queen Elizabeth I provided for the branding on the shoulder of vagrants. In truth this measure was a further development of the Queen’s compassionate obligation on the parish that it care for its own poor. A 16th century ASBO. Pour encourager les autres.

Not all was violence and brutality that year. 1572 was also the year when John Lyon, a yeoman farmer in Harrow, was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to found a Free Grammar School in the village of Harrow on the Hill for the education of poor boys of the parish. A good deed in a naughty world.

John Lyon was not alone at that time but part of a great movement to provide education for the poor. There remain Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar Schools in Alford, Ashbourne, Barnet, Blackburn, Faversham, Horncastle, Penrith and Wakefield. Those are simply the schools that acknowledge in their name their original association with the Queen. During her reign, countless other schools were founded, some now in the independent and some in the maintained sectors; and earlier in the 16th century, the Merchant Taylors’ first school, Dean Colet’s St Paul’s School, Christ’s Hospital and many other Blue Coat Schools. It was the beginning of education in the modern world.

But it was by no means the beginning of education for the poor. The religious houses and bishops’ palaces of the Middle Ages all made their contribution. Westminster School traces its modern foundation to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, having been established under statute in 1560, the year in which she created out of the dust of the monastery, dissolved under Henry VIII and re-established under Mary Tudor only to be dissolved again at her death, the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster of which I am the 38th Dean. But like the Abbey itself, Westminster School looks back to AD 960 when St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, first founded a monastic community at Westminster. Like other religious houses, from the beginning Westminster Abbey educated poor boys of the community. In the same way, King’s School Canterbury traces its origin to the arrival of St Augustine as first Archbishop of that see in 597. Wherever the Church has been, there has been education, and what’s more education on the basis of need rather than on the basis of ability to pay.

The Churches gave a massive boost to putting this principle into practice during the 19th century. We tend to think of the middle and later years of the reign of Queen Victoria as a high point for the Churches in England. If that is a fair judgement it is clear that much of the energy which yielded fruit in that era was expended in the early 19th century. In this year when we have commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we all remember William Wilberforce and his associates in the Clapham Sect. At the same time, another small group of lay Christians, known as the Hackney Phalanx, made a less celebrated but equally far-reaching impact. A leading figure was Joshua Watson, who was the chief energiser and became the first treasurer in 1811 of the Church of England’s agency in the provision of education for the poor. He and his colleagues founded the snappily titled National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales, whose brief title was and remains simply The National Society. It gained its royal charter a few years later. This truly marked the beginning of the modern system of education for all. The Society’s aim was a school in every parish and it went a long way towards achieving its goal. By 1835, a million children were being educated in the Society’s National Schools, the Church of England schools of our day.

None of this was any less controversial at the time than faith school education is now. The late Alan Webster wrote in 1954 of Joshua Watson’s battles, “The secularists were exceedingly vocal in debate but never commanded solid support in the country.” How familiar that sounds to one who spent eight years as the Church of England’s chief education officer answering in debate modern secularists’ attacks on church and other faith schools.

Gladstone answered the debate in 1870 when his government introduced compulsory elementary education. Crucially, rather than providing new schools for all and doing the Church out of business, or, as with Aneurin Bevan and the Church’s hospitals when the National Health Service was created, nationalising all the Church schools so that they were indistinguishable from the rest, Gladstone decided simply to fill up the gaps in the Church’s provision. The dual system of education, the Churches working in partnership with the State, has never gone without its critics or its challenges but has continued ever since.

Why has the Church always been so committed to the provision of education? F D Maurice in 1839 concluded in a lecture on whether the Church or the State had the power to educate the nation, “The Church must educate. A people cannot be educated aright by its political rulers or government.” The Duke of Wellington represented average opinion and typically expressed the matter more memorably, “Unless you base all this on religion, you are only making so many clever devils.” The National Society had the twin aim, socially, of enabling people to transcend their circumstances, to find fulfilment and to achieve their potential in life, and, religiously, of ensuring that everyone had the ability to read and ponder the scriptures. A text for this principle might have come from today’s first lesson, where St Paul said to his disciple Timothy, as he tutored him in the task of leading and oversight of a Church, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” The good treasure of the Christian gospel, the good news of God’s love, is not just to be preserved for its own or for our sake, but so that it can be handed on faithfully from generation to generation. The very existence of the Church today witnesses the manner in which men and women through the centuries have guarded and handed on the deposit of faith. For the Church there has always been a Fourth R in the purposes of education: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic and religion.

Today the Church’s commitment to providing schools and the Government’s commitment to church and other faith schools is probably stronger than it has been for many decades. Six years ago the Church of England decided to expand its provision of secondary schools. The hundred new secondary schools for which the General Synod asked are well on their way to being provided in partnership with government. Many of them will be academies, some in association with public schools, which also have a major role, as do the schools founded by or in the name of John Lyon, in providing education firmly rooted in the Christian religion. The opportunity exists today, in a new and more even-handed political environment for education, for the church and the independent sector to reach out more strongly, fulfilling together the original charitable purpose of providing education for all regardless of background. Our country and its education system needs places of excellence, schools where the highest quality of learning can be achieved and where academic staff are able to offer the best – and most innovative – standards of teaching. These should not hug their achievements to themselves but reach out to share their gifts. Then they will be exemplary and encouraging for the whole system of education, enabling all eventually to improve.

I started by accusing 1572 of being mired in blood and even went on to imply that our modern world was in a position to look back on that brutality with horror. Would it were so. The secularists today argue not that religion is the opium of the people, rather that it is dangerously inflammatory, a Molotov cocktail, leading inevitably to inter-communal violence and destruction. Education they say should be free from all religious influence. They are wrong. It is not religion itself but its perversion that leads to violence. Education based in true religion and enabling a proper perception of the power, love and beauty of God has the potential to lead people to lives of goodness and holiness, loving God and their neighbour.

The true fulfilment for every child and young man and woman in all schools and especially in the schools that are and will be associated with the name of John Lyon is that they should know themselves to be made and loved by God and with a purpose in their lives that includes as powerfully motivating forces the love of their neighbour and above all the love of God …

… to whom be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, dominion, glory and power, now and forever. Amen.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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