I was a School chaplain for 8 years from 2010 to 2018 in a school in Yorkshire. For children aged form 3-18 years, this school was affiliated to one of the smaller Protestant Churches in Britain of which I was, at the time, an ordained minister. I am now retired.
When I became the chaplain I already knew something of the school as a Governor and Parent. My daughter was a student there from 2005-2012. The school had a daily tradition of short chapel services which were attended by all students at least once a week. Chapel services were also held on certain Sundays in term time and at the end of the school year.
As Chaplain I wanted to encourage the students of all ages to engage with the bible (I use a small ‘b’ as I’m talking about more than just a written book) in as many ways as possible and make it their own as a guide and source of inspiration and faith. This was a method of discipling that was founded on discovering and owning the bible in us. I call this strategy Remembering the Bible or RB and I have been using it now for 25 years with people of all ages and abilities.
In this blog post I hope to illustrate something about what happened when children and young people in a school community had the opportunity to talk about the gospel. This was the foundation of both the pioneering and the change that would be at the heart of the chaplaincy in this community. For this to happen, first, space was required. The chapel became an open space for children and young people to use at any time from 2010. They did not require permission to enter (as had previously been the case). Some found a place to read in the otherwise unused pulpit, or liked to run up and down the steps. Others sat quietly talking to each other or ate the biscuits which were usually available. This space was mirrored with the chaplaincy, a room in the main part of the school which was also the Chaplain’s office but was held in common for any who needed to use it at any time of the day. It became a place of settling arguments, mourning, resting, planning and celebrating. Of these spaces a member of staff told me about two years after we began: ‘When I was a first qualified as a teacher I went to work in a school on a new housing estate in the North of England. There it was said that the houses were for the families, the schools were for the children and the churches were for the old people, but you have made these children think that the chapel is for them’. This quotation illustrates that others too had come to appreciate the importance of the chapel as space for the children and young people to engage with the bible on their faith journey.
Of course not everyone thought that RB was a good idea when I first introduced it to the school in 2010. Some of the reservations voiced at the time, from adults, were similar to those I have encountered in churches. There was the ‘They won’t be able to do it’ argument, which had already proved untrue in other places (see Lees 2007 and 2011) alongside ‘It will be chaotic’. That at least is true if your scale is normally calibrated with the passive unresponsiveness so often encountered in our dwindling and dying churches dominated by older adults. Of course there are more chaotic places, but chaos is an important aspect of RB and permission for chaos to happen, even in chapel for a few minutes, is an important energiser that gives birth to the shared remembered gospel. When it comes to RB disorder is the new order.
Introducing RB to any group is best done by ‘just going for it’ (Lees, 2007). A patchwork of methods was employed including drama, drawing, videos, photography, singing and conversations. There would be discussions about ‘What happened next?’, ‘Where did the gospel begin or end?’ and other activities like Jesus’ life on a piece of string (Lees 2011). There were no wrong answers although the Headmaster did once observe that there could be a poor one. Other popular activities included a version of the BBC TV show ‘Pointless’ in which one group provided the data base of answers to a question like ‘The kingdom of God is like…’ and another group came up with responses that could be ‘pointless’ (i.e. in the bible but not in the data base provided by the first group). RB got into everything: classrooms and corridors, any place where people gathered.
‘Your mum talks about the bible more than the old Rev’ said one student to my daughter, then a pupil at the school, about three weeks after we started RB in 2010. A few years later, a member of staff (he taught science) told me ‘I’ve never worked in a school like this before. The children here know more about the Bible than I do and they are always talking about it’. Clearly both the students and the staff had noticed the strategy and had engaged with it.
As far as the students were concerned, they didn’t just talk about it, they interpreted it themselves and use it to inform their engagement in the world. Here’s one example:
A 17 year old boy is showing some prospective parents round the school. He brings them into chapel and explains that we all come to chapel once a week (I am a silent observer blending into the wall). Then he says ‘Last time we were doing ‘Pointless’, you know, like the TV show. So Rev asked a question ‘The kingdom of God is like?’ That’s in the bible; it’s something Jesus said. We had to finish off the sentence. So I said ‘The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed’. That’s in the bible too. It’s something else Jesus said. I said ‘it’s like a mustard seed’ because that’s like our Tanzania Project. It’s something that starts very small, like a mustard seed, but it grows and grows and grows, just like the mustard seed in the story, and eventually we were able to do even more than we thought we could’. 
When we did RB together it is usually a collaborative group effort. Students participated in ways appropriate to each individual. So for example, the week before Holy Week, a discussion about ‘Jesus’ job description’ (it was career’s week!) with a group of year 11 students (aged 15-16 years) resulted in the following job description for Jesus.
- Like fishing
- Be able to walk on water
- Story teller
- Considerate of other people
- A nice guy
- Then get yourself crucified
There was a discussion about the list they had generated. One 16 year old boy queried the inclusion of ‘a nice guy’ on the list saying:
‘He was a discriminator’ and recalling the story of the Canaanite woman said ‘He called her a dog’.
This led onto a discussion of the last item on the list, ‘get yourself crucified’.
‘Get yourself crucified’ (suggested by a 16 year old girl) at first sight seemed humorous, but discussion revealed it actually pointed to a significant depth of understanding about Jesus’ mission. Jesus was taking risks from early on in his ministry right up to the final week, the entry to Jerusalem and the encounters of each day up to his crucifixion. Such behaviour would be recognised by young people and the ‘job description’ example suggested that they related to this risk-taking Jesus.
This series of observations resonated with a conversation I had with another minister about Jesus taking risks, who said:
‘I remember talking to a Methodist ministry student who works at a women’s project in Liverpool and does Bible studies with a group of self-harmers. She said that at a study on the Passion story, they told her that they recognised Jesus as one of them – clearly, he was a self-harmer who kept putting himself into difficulties.
I have also found that the more I return to the text of Mark’s Gospel the more I am convinced that Jesus is portrayed as stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. He takes on every group and faction in turn and stands on their corns….he finds every wasp’s nest and kicks it’.
Using RB as a strategy has both individual and collective components. Whilst it is individuals who remember specific things they do so in a group or collective setting. What is remembered and how this happens is shaped both by the individuals themselves and the context in which they operate (Rodriguez 2010). There is feedback between what an individual remembers and how it is received and shaped in the group through interaction between the group members. Even so there remains a distinction between personal memory and the collective memory of the group. There is a play back and forth between these and in this social forces influence the sense of belonging an individual has with the group. Social memory is the outcome of the process of individuals remembering together and a cycle of reflecting on and living with those memories which are significant in the context in which they have occurred. It is this social memory that contributes to the construction of community as a place where this happening is accorded value.
Using RB in the school chaplaincy resulted in positive responses from both students and staff, people of all ages and abilities, and led to a sense of renewed community such as ‘God is out and proud in this school’ and ‘The Chapel is at the heart of the school’ (responses to denominational review of the Chaplaincy in 2014). I have used the RB strategy in a number of different locations over the last 25 years and more examples of this can be found in my work, much of which can be downloaded from Wild Goose Publication (www.ionabooks.com).
Image credit: Ethel Spowers (1890-1947) / Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Lees, J A (2007) Word of Mouth: Using the Remembered Bible for Community Building. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications.
Lees, J (2011) Tell me the stories of Jesus: a companion to the remembered gospel. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications.
Rodriguez, R. (2010) Structuring Early Christian Memory. London: T & T Clarke.
Janet Lees, now a writer and Lay Benedictine, was a school chaplain in Yorkshire from 2010-2018. She has a PhD in Human Communication Sciences from the University of Sheffield. Janet’s books can be found via this link. She is on twitter as @Bambigoesforth.
 The pulpit was removed in 2012 as it is not necessary for anyone to be six foot above contradiction in a place where everyone’s perspective counts. Besides which it took up a lot of room.
 An RB practitioner all of her life, Hannah Warwicker (OS) was Senior Chapel Steward from 2010-2012.
 The Tanzania Project worked with an charity based in that country and a rural school to improve the educational opportunities for local children. It involved the whole school in fund raising, a team of staff and students who went to Tanzania and who learnt in that context about community development.
 John Campbell, personal communication, April 2016