Spiritual refreshment in the middle of the summer term is something devoutly to be wished by all Catholic headteachers, but those of us who were fortunate enough to attend the second National Retreat for Catholic Heads in June actually received it. In the beautiful setting of the Ettington Chase Hotel near Stratford-Upon-Avon, we settled down for two days of reflection under the wise direction of Fr. Christopher Jamison OSB and emerged with a new perspective on our roles as heads.
Fr Christopher had the good sense at the beginning of the retreat to instruct us all to lay down our iphones and, after a good deal of twitching and murmuring, we complied. The anxieties we had brought with us gradually faded away as we listened to our director carefully guiding us through five structured sessions, in which we were urged to reflect on what the desert fathers could tell us about being heads in the twenty-first century. It became clear that there was a great deal. The demons that beset the fathers, it turned out, are also those that beset us as heads and Fr. Christopher, having experienced eight years of headship at Worth School, was able to demonstrate this from the wealth of his experience. Interspersed with anecdotes, such as the time when his patience was sorely tried by a boy who managed to set fire to the school, Fr. Christopher’s talks proved a rich source of practical advice on how to live the Christian life in the midst of headship.
A particular highlight was the evening liturgy, where we were invited to reflect on where we, as heads, had fallen short in our practice of the Christian virtues. This penitential service led into Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, with some fine singing of the Tantum Ergo and quiet reflection keeping us focussed on the purpose of the retreat as the hotel’s bar began to do business. This, combined with an opportunity for individual confession, helped us see how a regular prayer life and healthy relationship with God are the bedrock of Catholic headship. If Catholic schools are truly to be different from other schools, we learned, their heads must never lose sight of what is at their centre and must practise in their lives what they preach. This is what makes the Catholic head distinct from his colleagues in other schools and ensures that we remain faithful to the mission entrusted to us. There was a great deal that was inspiring in the programme offered to us at Ettington Chase, and I find it hard to believe that anyone would have emerged unchanged from attending.
The retreat had other delights to offer as well as the purely spiritual. Our bodily needs were not neglected and John Shinkwin had made the sensible move of informing the chef at Ettington Chase that headteachers were possessed of unusually discerning palates. This resulted in some excellent food, including some delicious looking sausages on the Friday morning that, abstinent to a fault, we all scrupulously passed up in favour of two or three eggs, mushrooms, pastries and other less meaty delights. In between the talks, the more energetic delegates took off on long country walks or headed for the pool, where the sauna proved the perfect place to sweat off the calories gained at dinner the night before. Another excellent feature of the retreat was the opportunity it offered to us, as independent school heads, to mix with our colleagues from the maintained system. For once, the jargon all too familiar from conferences and diocesan meetings was put aside and we were able to discuss our mutual concerns in a common language.
The organisers of the retreat are to be congratulated on their boldness in standing up for the spiritual in the midst of so much that is mundane in the educational world. We were all reminded of what makes Catholic schools unique and given a wonderful opportunity to retreat in order to go forward more purposefully. However busy you may be in June next year, I urge you to attend (Thurs 12-Fri 13th June 2014 "I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly" led by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP again at the Ettington Chase Hotel, nr Stratford-upon-Avon) and be reminded of why you became the head of a Catholic school in the first place. You will not be disappointed.
Stephen Oliver (Principal of Our Lady’s Abingdon)