Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Schools harness the power of story

Leaders from Anglican schools across Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia have tapped into the power of story to help shape the Christian character of their schools’ lives.

Taonga News  |  01 Jul 2019  |

Up to 135 Anglican school principals, chaplains, students and RE teachers gathered for the 2019 Anglican Schools’ Conference in Timaru have refocused their approach to Anglican character inspired by the theme, ‘Singing our stories.’

“Stories show us who we are, but also shape who we are….” said Director of the Anglican Schools Office, Rev Dr Anne van Gend in her opening presentation to the schools conference.

“As Rabbi Sacks has said, ‘We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’”. 

While their teachers, chaplains and church leaders worked in the plenary sessions at Craighead Diocesan School’s auditorium, 20 students from 34 Pākehā schools and Hukarere and Te Aute Colleges, joined a further 4 students from Diocese of Polynesia schools for a parallel youth-focused programme run by Caroline Chambers from the CMS Better World scheme and Tikanga Pākehā national youth coordinator, Lorna Gray.

Youth delegates were guest speakers at the conference dinner where they shared issues from their generation with skits highlighting pressure points in young people’s lives: including social media, alcohol and drugs, ‘high expectation’ pressures, fear of failure, consumerism and climate change.

Anne challenged Anglican schools to step back and look at the stories they tell about their achievements in the light of many students’ sense of intense public pressure to succeed,

“Are we telling the same secular story of achievement and success – and demanding that every student can reach the stars if only they turn to their own resources and try hard enough?” she asked.

Anne shared that chaplains around the country regularly hear from students that the pressure to excel weighs heavily on them, especially in the fishbowl of social media.

“There’s no problem with hard work, self care and high goals – all great.” she said. 

“But the stories of our faith tend to clash against those stories.”

“Stories in the Bible are starkly realistic. So often they are stories of how God takes our weaknesses, our petty failures or even our hideous atrocities – and transforms them.”

Anne laid out an example of what makes the Christian difference in a story from the Australia about the Catholic schools in Toowoomba. For a number of years Toowoomba Catholic schools had been leading daily Christian contemplation sessions with their students. Over the time this had been in place, they saw behavioural problems go down and academic achievement go up. 

“The Ministry of Education was so interested by this …that they approached one of the secondary schools and asked if they could do a research project… to map the effect of prayer and meditation on behaviour and academic performance.”

“But the school said, ‘No.’”

“When asked by a bewildered ministry, why not?, they said, We don’t do this because it improves our academic level. We do it because this is what Christians do.”

This year the Anglican schools’ conference also welcomed its largest turnout of Anglicans from beyond school boundaries in the last six years – including bishops, ministry educators, Anglican youth workers and cathedral deans.

“It was great to see an increasing interest and buy-in to ministry with the schools from the wider church.” said Anne.

Picking up the theme, keynote speaker the Rev John Bell, from the Church of Scotland and the Iona Community, spoke on the power of singing our stories – drawing on his many years’ experience as a composer and worship leader.

“When we sing together, we create our identity… he said.

“And what we sing shapes what we believe.”

 John pointed out, for example, that if all we sing are old English hymns, we can come to believe that the church only reflects a previous century, and is good for that culture and time, rather than being alive in this time and place. 

He believes that’s why Christians need to sing their songs in languages and from cultures different to their own, so that even as they sing they come to know the global character of their Christian faith.

“We have to be so careful about the words we sing – because the words we sing change what we perceive ourselves to be,” he said.

Bell also challenged schools to sing songs from the whole story of faith, not only those of praise and individual redemption, but those of lament, and at this time, he called for songs that honour God’s creation and urge its loving care.

Archbishop Don Tamihere gave the second keynote, taking his listeners through the stories that shaped his own whakapapa, as he shared how telling stories that bind people and places together builds identity and connection in tikanga Māori. 

Archbishop Don traced the lines of connection that run through and between the stories of ancestors and families through time and space – which for Christians include stories from the Bible and the church.

Principal of St Mark’s School in Christchurch, Averil Worner was moved by what she heard in Archbishop Don’s whakapapa.

“Archbishop Don shared the beauty of oral storytelling with us – and he showed how the stories not only connected people to each other, but also to the environment around them, in ways that have real relevance for us all today.”

Dotted through the programme were pop-up short stories from around the Province’s schools prepared by members of the conference, which included contributions by Onosai Auva’a, Warren Watson, Gerald Billings and Lucy Flatt.

Further presentations saw delegates learn more about storytelling through: sharing the Old Testament with children (Gerard Morris), engaging students with lament (Malcolm Gordon), listening to others’ stories – the stories between the lines (Kelvin Wright), stories from Christians in science (Nicola Hoggard-Creegan), while Dinah Lambert took a session on teaching poi chant and the Church of England’s Andy Wolfe took a session on identifying and training future Anglican school principals.

For more information visit the website of the Anglican Schools Office 

For the full original text of Rev Dr Anne van Gend’s introduction: Why ‘Singing our stories’?

For a taste of Archbishop Don Tamihere’s whakapapa visit his E-tangata interview

Don Tamihere: Brought up on ‘the back of the old world’