Reflections on my Rome Retreat – Part 2

This is the second part of my reflections on my Rome Retreat, this one focuses more on RE.

Firstly, it struck me in Rome that there is an explicit entwining of society and religion. Like Thailand (see a previous blog!!), the religious is part of the everyday. As Revd. Canon Richard Watson ( one of our retreat leaders, @RichardFWatson) put it whilst we sipped Limoncello next to the Pantheon (!), religion is respected, expected and connected. The expression of religion is respected by people. This might be one reason why priests could openly engage with people on the streets and invite people to pray. It is also expected, so it is not unusual to see expressions of faith. It is not seen as something that you just do in private, there are public expressions of faith everywhere. In many ways there is no division between the sacred and secular. People express their beliefs through the material i.e. through ritual, symbolism, music, art and so on. Lastly, people feel connected to the church, there is a strong sense of a living tradition. This unites people and provides a strong sense of belonging to a community. In RE, we need to enable children and young people to gain some understanding of how in many places in the world religion is not ‘inside a box’ or a ‘private thing’.

Secondly, Rome reminded me of the diversity of expression within one Christian tradition. Even within the Roman Catholic tradition itself we saw a huge range of different types of church practice. We witnessed the pilgrimage of many as part of the Holy Year, the contemporary worship of young priests out on the streets, mass being sung and said, confession being offered in many languages, candles being lit, prayers being written on post it notes… in RE I think we sometimes give a rather bland view of the expression of Christian faith. We need to show the colour and diversity of different traditions much more ( and not just in Christianity).

Thirdly, my time in Rome made me think about ‘the missing aspects’ of the usual RE curriculum, particularly in terms of Christianity. Some of the most interesting (and often moving) aspects of the retreat for me were exploring the persecution of the early church, the martyrdom of many of the saints and the way in which pagan traditions stood alongside Christian ones in the 1st Century. The visit to the scavi ( beneath St Peter’s Basilica) was probably one of the highlights in relation to this. I wonder sometimes if we avoid some of the most powerful narratives in RE… perhaps it is time to reintroduce a bit more early church history….?

Reflections on my retreat in Rome- Part 1

Reflections on my Rome Retreat- Part 1

The chapel where we were staying.
The chapel where we were staying.

I have just returned from 5 days in Rome with headteachers, senior leaders and advisors from a Church of England Diocese. This blog is the first of two reflections. This one focuses on the benefits of retreat for those in senior church school leadership, the second I hope in a few days time, will focus on RE.

If I am honest, I had questioned whether it was a wise idea to take time out of my busy work schedule to go on a retreat, it did also occur to me whether headteachers should be doing this. I shall never question this again! These 5 days have shown me so clearly that retreat should be an essential element of church school leadership, development and support. So what has convinced me…

Building a community of support
We (those of us in educational leadership roles) need community. We need one another. One headteacher reflecting on the retreat said to me, ‘I have never laughed so much’. On a one day conference or network meeting we meet, we talk about work, we move on. However over 5 days outside of the usual working environment friendships were created, support mechanisms set up, listening ears provided, openness generated; leaders were nurtured, encouragement was given…. We also had time to see one another as real people and not just headteachers or leaders. I learnt that some have amazing singing voices, play the organ, have an amazing array of headwear or can drive a hard bargain at the market. Building these relationships means that future working with these colleagues will be more effective because we have shared often deep personal stories with one another.

Creating connections with a faith tradition
Not only did the retreat build a sense of community with one another, but also an understanding of our part within the community of faith. The retreat allowed the headteachers to connect with the Christian faith in a way that was sensitive to their needs. We all gained a deeper understanding of the roots of the Christian Faith through engagement with Christian pilgrimage sites and monuments e.g tomb of St Peter, churches of Christian martyrs and saints. Connecting with the past encouraged us all to see the relationship of this with the present and future. It enabled us to understand our place within the Christian tradition and how our work now relates to this.

Developing an understanding of spiritual leadership
Whilst on retreat I was reading a book called Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster. This book explores the different traditions of the Christian faith. I was drawn to the last chapter about the incarnational (sacramental) tradition, as it seemed to me that it might be helpful in understanding the importance of retreat for headteachers. This tradition stresses that God is in the ordinariness of life. This gives meaning to work- particularly the work of leaders and headteachers in church schools. Richard Foster puts it like this,

‘If ours is God’s world, any true work for the improvement of human life is a sacred undertaking’ ( Foster 1999 p.224)

In addition, in terms of worship this tradition focuses on using the physical and material to express the spiritual. So physical objects such a crosses, candles, bread and wine and so on, help the worshipper to become closer to God. This is why many churches place an emphasis on the sacramental e.g. the Eucharist. I wonder if this is why that when speaking to some of the heads, the most moving moments during the retreat were linked to sacramental experiences – the compline, the Eucharist, the lighting of a candle, singing in St Cecilia’s Church, walking the footsteps of Christian martyrs…

Providing inspiration for teaching and learning
We had just come out of the Sistine Chapel when one headteacher said, ‘Just think of the many things you could use the Sistine chapel for in the curriculum!’. As we passed a display of different crucifixes and crosses, a headteacher talked about a project she is leading where every child is creating their own cross. Professional learning happened in the coffee shops, in churches and walking along the streets of Rome!! Colleagues discussed introducing daily staff reflections, prayer spaces, exploring Christian diversity more in RE, the purpose of RE and even SIAMS inspections.

A view of Rome
A view of Rome

So, this is why I believe space and time for retreat is invaluable. I feel privileged to have been able to take part, and hope it won’t be the last time.