Ever heard of a chap called Barry Sheerman? Neither had I. He sounds a very tiresome man, so I can’t say he’s on my must-invite-him-round-for-tea list. But we need to notice what he’s doing, because he’s determined to try to wreck some of the schools in Britain which happen who be doing a competent job, and some of the families that are raising their children with sound values and a reason for living.
Sheerman is a Labour Member of Parliament and chairman of something called the Children, Schools, and Families Committee in Parliament. It’s a Select Committee, which as I understand it means that it’s not directly concerned with legislation, its task being more that of keeping a "watching brief".
Sheerman doesn’t like Church schools, and his particular beef is that they will insist on teaching the Christian understanding of marriage and family life. That means teaching that aborting babies is wrong, that marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman – and only a man and a woman, not two men or two women – and that sexual communion belongs only to this relationship and not to any other.
"A lot of taxpayers’ money is going into church schools and I think we should tease out what is happening here" he has announced. He doesn’t like the fact that Catholic schools teach the Catholic faith and morals – or that schools with such an approach are clearly popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He says there is evidence of Catholic schools taking a more "fundamentalist line" than he would like.
Mr Sheerman’s problem is that he appears to believe that taxpayers’ money – including that of Catholic taxpayers – should only go to schools that teach his version of things. He doesn’t think that the Church is right on certain issues so he doesn’t think there should be Catholic schools giving the Church’s message.
Will he, one wonders, adopt the same approach to other tax-funded activities? There are tax-funded schools instructing children in music, teaching very specific rules on musical notation and the fixing of the sound made by an instrument when trying to hit a particular note. Perhaps he doesn’t like it. He’d rather they used a wholly different idea of notation, or that the tonal system should be different, or that the examiners and various authorities concerned with musical matters should not be allowed to be responsible for these things: "A lot of taxpayers’ money goes into music and I think we should tease out what is happening here."
Poor Mr Sheerman seems to think that governance in Britain means telling churches what to do. Not so. The Catholic Church was running schools in Britain for a full thousand years before any government was doing so. Our great universities of Oxford and Cambridge were founded by the Church, along with our great hospitals – and all the great universities and hospitals of Europe. Using public funds to support the educational work begun and still carried out by the Church is useful and sensible – but it doesn’t take away the rights of the Church or of the people who have chosen to make use of Church schools in preference to those established by secular authorities (for which church members willingly pay as part of their contribution to the common good, and because they may also make use of them).
What poor Mr Sheerman needs to grasp is that being a Member of Parliament doesn’t mean he can expect to claim that public money can only go to things of which he personally approves, or believes that others should approve. It doesn’t give him any right at all to dictate that there should only be one set of ideas taught to children. On the contrary. It is his task to be of service to the rest of us, and to ensure that the institutions created to serve the community are safe in his hands.
Catholic schools have a good record of service in Britain and are, as Sheerman well knows, over-subscribed and immensely popular. They do not always adhere as strongly as they should to the Church’s teachings – for people in such schools, as for those working in many fields, it may be tempting to fudge things, or to believe it virtually impossible to uphold the great Christian truths because they seem so much at variance with the selfishness, voyeurism, vulgarity and brutality of our modern British community life.
But that is a matter for the Church – and when Bishops try to tighten things up, to improve the teaching, to inspire and encourage teachers, all that a politician should do is leave them to it. Such Bishops are to be warmly commended – just as a musician should be when visiting a music school and encouraging the pupils there to apply themselves to the highest standards and achieve the ability to play Mozart and Beethoven and Handel and not just to squawk on their violins without proper instruction or help.
Now, none of this would be a matter for much debate except that the man Sheerman is a Labour Member of Parliament and we are living in times that are not easy for opponents of the Labour political machine. Our Bishops have, in ways they are probably now regretting, been far too enthusiastic about supporting the Labour governments since 1997. They appeared to believe that the Labour party was a lovely collection of home-loving folks who wanted peace and goodwill and universal abolition of poverty. Instead, we’ve got human/animal hybrids, a massive crime wave, same-sex "civil unions" and our Army embroiled in a war in Iraq.
It’s time for the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to stick up for the Church in a robust and unflinching way. Catholic schools have an absolute right to teach Catholic doctrine and morals. Catholic schools will have crucifixes in their classrooms, daily Catholic prayers, regular confession and Mass on school premises, and solid teaching on any and every aspect of the Catholic Faith that is appropriate to the children’s age and understanding. That includes, as and when relevant, the Catholic message on loving your neighbour, obeying your parents, telling the truth, refraining from sexual activity outside of marriage, protecting unborn babies, caring for the poor, worshipping God at Mass on Sundays, confessing sins and receiving absolution, and an absolute ban on theft, bullying, adultery, reading pornography, taking part in homosexual activity, killing sick people, killing well people, killing babies, and a number of other sins too numerous to mention.
Mr Sheerman may not like the Catholic Church’s teachings, but that is a problem for him and not for the nation which is well-served by Catholic schools and other institutions and very fortunate to have them.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.