Visit to Chis 'n Sid

No this is not a duo rivalling Chas 'n Dave but the nickname of the Grammar School in Blackfen: Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar. In England, a Grammar school is one which selects pupils on the basis of ability, measured by a selection test taken in the top year of Junior School (age 10/11). Most of these schools became comprehensive (mixed ability) schools some decades ago, including most of the Catholic Grammar schools such as the John Fisher School which I attended.

In my parish, parents are faced with a dilemma. If their child is academically gifted, they have the chance of attending a school where the curriculum is slanted in this direction (for example Latin is part of the curriculum at Chis 'n Sid). The Catholic secondary schools strongly maintain that their provision for academically able children is just as good and that the exam results reflect this. In the end, parents have to make the decision that they feel is best.

Quite a number of my young parishioners therefore attend local non-Catholic Grammar schools. Anna-Marie, a Catholic student in the sixth form invited me to come to the school today to address the Christian Union. Catholic University students may think this odd because the "Christian Union" at most English universities is strongly evangelical and would be unlikely to invite a Catholic priest to speak. However, I think I am right in saying that the Christian Union at Chis 'n Sid is composed of students of various Christian denominations who have an interest in discussing religious matters - and indeed is open to students who profess to be agnostic or atheist.

My talk was billed as "Is religion scientifically reasonable" and I gave a shortened version of the Meriol Trevor Lecture that I gave at Bath University some time ago. The classroom was equipped with an electronic whiteboard so I could show a powerpoint summary with pretty pictures finishing with a nice one of the Lagoon Nebula (left) fading into the apse mosaic of Christ Pantokrator (above) in the Cathedral at Monreale (Sicily) which I visited many years ago with Fr Guy Nichols.

The turnout was impressive since the talk and discussion took up the whole of the lunch break. (There was free cake on offer to help things along!) The group is organised by sixth formers who formed the main nucleus to begin with. They have just finished exams: Anna-Marie had sat a Maths A-level paper earlier and explained to me the stinker of a question that was the last on the paper. There was also a good number of students from lower down the school in their distinctive purple blazers. We had about 50 minutes so I zipped through the material fairly briskly to allow plenty of time for discussion.

There were very thoughtful and challenging questions from the students and also from the two staff members who came. As well as the topic of the talk itself, questions addressed predestination, free will and determinism, and the claim to truth in religion. It struck me quite forcibly that Pope Benedict really has his finger on the pulse; his insistence on the invitation to seek the truth with respect and charity is exactly right. We seemed to run over the time for the start of lessons and I found myself eventually having to encourage the younger ones to go to class. I must say that this was a very enjoyable occasion and I would be more than happy to visit again.

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