St John’s Grammar has a long and proud history of being an Anglican school. Faith has been central to the School’s identity over the last 64 years as it has grown from a small parish primary school to such a well-regarded ELC – Year 12 Grammar School. Last week I began the role of Chaplain here at St John’s. While I already know a number of the students from being a Wellbeing Assistant since the start of year, I am excited to be able to get to know our students within the context of my new role as Chaplain.
In a world where religion can be polarising, faith can seem irrelevant, and belief in the spiritual can seem absurd; how do we honour the School’s faith tradition?
Furthermore, how do we introduce our students to a framework for understanding faith and spirituality, and those who believe it?
I have been involved in working with young people and helping them to explore spirituality for over 20 years. While most of my experience is within schools and churches in Adelaide, between 2014 and 2020, I worked with an Australian missions agency, putting my International Development degree into practice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
My own faith has gone through many seasons of growth.
The traditions I worship with and practices I find helpful, have changed as I have come to know Christians from all traditions across the world. As I have often wrestled with my own faith, the actions of Christians around the world, and both the joys and pain of my own church experiences, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what emotionally and socially healthy faith expressions look like.
I believe that healthy expressions of faith have 3 core characteristics.
And, I also believe that it is more important than ever to help our young people experience healthy models of faith practice and to evaluate religious expressions against these characteristics.
For me, the 3 characteristics of a healthy faith expression are that:
- It is personal and emotionally healthy.
- It is communally focused.
- It is open to questions, paradox and mystery.
I will take some time now to explore each of these core characteristics and what they mean below.
1. It is personal and emotionally healthy.
As shown in this interesting Forbes article, there are multiple studies that show that having regular religious practices is correlated with better health outcomes, a greater sense of community, and a longer and more fulfilling life.
However, it is also not hard to find examples to back up C.S. Lewis’ claim that,
“If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.”
Faith that is unhealthy tends to require strict adherence to one scriptural interpretation, which often minimises people’s emotions and life experience to fit a pre-determined narrative. Emotionally healthy spirituality on the other hand, is a faith that is connected to, not hidden from, our emotional wellbeing.
That is why it is so exciting that spirituality is recognised as part of our wellbeing pillars here at St John’s. Everyone’s experience (or lack of experience) with a sense of the spiritual will be uniquely shaped by their life experiences. I hope to equip people with faith practices that heighten their own sense of self-awareness and God-awareness, and that also support wellbeing practices such as gratitude, meditation and mindfulness.
For Christians, this emotional well-being is connected to our sense of who God is and how God views us, as shown through the person of Jesus. Our understanding that all forms of beauty, goodness, justice, love, and creativity flow out of God’s character. These are themes that will be central to our chapel services.
2. It is communally focused.
Christianity’s two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God” and to “love your neighbour as yourself’. Healthy faith practices encourage participants to do this by creating opportunities for worshipping together, and by creating a sense of community; both in their own church experiences and in wider experiences of doing life with others, such as youth groups, camps and service projects. Welcoming others and hospitality is central to the faith.
Unhealthy faith isolates and polarises. When combined with emotionally unhealthy practices, unhealthy faith can build an “us vs them” mentality, create pockets of cultural homogeneity, and leave little room for diversity.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the invitation for each of us to become participants in God’s story and the work that we believe God is still doing in the present. We believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God in the world now – even if it is not yet fully realised. One of the theological concepts for explaining what the Kingdom of God looks like is Shalom. It is well described in this video from the Bible Project.
Shalom describes a state of being where all broken relationships between us and God, each other, the environment, and our understanding of ourselves have been restored to full health and wholeness.
Healthy faith practices seek to empower their participants with the tools and desire to attempt to practice Shalom in our daily lives. Community is our greatest asset and our greatest limitation for putting Shalom into practice. In our relationships we recognise both the hurt we cause to others and the redemption that healthy relationships bring. Communal faith practices then go beyond simply attending a chapel service.
We must learn from other voices and seek to put into practice a faith that supports an interconnected humanity, rather than seeking the best for our own interests. We need to reflect on our relationships, where they bring healing and where they do harm, and explore how we do life with people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences.
Spirituality and Service are connected as our wellbeing pillar at St John’s because service – making space for the experience of others – is the practical outworking of spirituality.
3. It is open to questions, paradox and mystery
Unhealthy faith practices often have a narrow view of the world. Rather than seeing how our understanding of the world expands our idea of who God is, unhealthy faith expressions can either shut themselves away from society or try to reshape the world to fit their theological understanding. Left alone, these factors lead to avoiding interactions with others (such as in strict Amish communities) or to radicalisation, as we saw with the Capitol building insurrection.
A faith framework that will withstand the test of time, is one that is willing to embrace the power of questions, and of ‘both/and’ answers.
Anglicanism, with its focus on reason and reflective learning, and its determination to balance sacrament and teaching, is a great faith lens for exploring this characteristic. As we consider the teachings of the gospels and reflect on church history and its current condition, we see that healthy faith resists our natural inclination to polarisation.
Healthy faith embraces spiritual practices that make space for both:
- doing and rest
- service and silence
- the sacred and the secular
- celebration and grief
- reason and emotion
- science and the unexplainable
- prayer and activism
- belief and doubt.
There needs to be space in our understanding of faith for academic rigour and questioning of our own beliefs and assumptions. To limit our engagement in this area dishonours the intellectual gifts we have been given.
This is something students need to see modelled, which is why our chapel services will not only be church services, but also be a space where questions can be asked, and where the holding of paradox is modelled in spiritual practices, such as lament.
According to Anglican Schools Australia, Anglican schools are unified in being places where the school community is open to share in belief, to think and reason, to worship together, to welcome all and to love and help each other. It is my prayer that through their experiences at School, our students will be able to recognise the contribution that a healthy form of spirituality can make to their own lives and the lives of others.