I am getting increasingly excited about our forthcoming Founders’ Day, which promises to be a really special one. We will be welcoming the Venerable Edward Dowler, Archdeacon of Hastings to lead us in our service of thanksgiving for the life of the school, so that’s one cause for my sense of excited anticipation.
One key moment in our Founders’ Day service is a short liturgy, woven into our prayers of thanksgiving, which sees our year 13 students led by the Head Girl and Head Boy, hand on the values of the school to the coming generation of year 7 students, who receive in token of this a young sapling, which is to be planted in the school grounds. The tree is intended to symbolise the ongoing flourishing of the school and its Christian values. The living tree speaks too of the importance that our values are lived out by all of the school community. They need to be re-visited and modeled continuously and consistently if they are to be the basis of our common school life. Finally, the tree once planted, has a permanence, it is if you will forgive the metaphor, thoroughly grounded in the soil at Bennett. It becomes part of the physical space of the school.
Our Church School Inspection, which happened just a week ago, provides some strong evidence from an objective perspective that those values do indeed run deep and wide at Bennett, like tree roots. Our inspector, whose full report can be read here http://www.bennettmemorial.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/SIAMS-Bennett-Memorial-Report-Sept-2017.pdf, wrote: “The school’s Christian vision drives it into successfully seeking to unlock the potential of every individual, created by God with uncapped possibilities… Students flourish academically and personally. Their wellbeing, and that of the staff, is effectively addressed as an outworking of its Christian ethos and values… the school’s Christian distinctiveness and effectiveness continue to be lived out and drive forward developments.” We were pleased too, of course, that our inspector found us to be ‘outstanding’ in all four of the inspection categories and ‘outstanding’ overall.
Another reason for my growing sense of excitement at the coming of Founders’ Day is that we hope to have some very special guests with us, alongside our VIP speaker. We have invited the headteacher and pupils from the newly opened Bishop Chavasse primary school in Tonbridge to join our celebrations. Fellow members of the Tenax Trust, Bishop Chavasse School only opened its doors to Reception age children some four weeks ago for the very first time. The school, which is named after Christopher Chavasse who co-founded Bennett, shares its history with this school and we hope to mark that by sharing some aspects of our Founders’ Day thanksgiving with the new school and its pupils.
As we prepare to give thanks for the founding of this school and in particular the purchase and donation of the Mansion building by Lady Elena Bennett to the diocese of Rochester, I am reminded again of how important places are. They give material expression to deeply held, but sometimes hard to define things. Twice over the past school year we have hosted former students who wanted to return to the school buildings as part of their reunion events. In both cases, the groups took great delight in going around the school buildings to identify where some of their lasting memories of school life took place.
There are some Christians for whom the buildings of the Church are not a priority in their faith. Theirs is often experienced as a personal religion, where God is to be encountered at the bus stop. I am certainly not gainsaying that encounter, but I do believe that places matter in our Christian faith, because they are where we come together to encounter God. Ours is a revealed faith, which speaks of God being encountered in His glory when His people come together in worship. 1 Peter 2 tells us that we together are the ‘living stones’ which build up the spiritual temple. The long journey of the Ark of the Covenant ends with Solomon building the temple. 2 Chronicles 4 sets the scene of God’s approval of the temple, with trumpeters and singers joining together as one in praise, the temple is filled with cloud; “for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God”. I hope and believe that Bennett is a place where we may encounter God, if we choose to do so. Certainly, as we come together on Founders’ Day to celebrate the Eucharist, we will be invited into that Real Presence, joining in the sacramental worship of the Church. Knowing Mr Johnson, our outstanding Director of Music, there will be trumpeters and singers there too!