As a member of staff at the Society of the Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith, London, I feel very much part of the Sacred Heart community, but in some ways I may also be viewed as an outsider. I am not Catholic but was brought up with a Church of England mother and a much older and rather intellectual father who would have none of it.
While my father was not a fan of organised religion, for him it was one’s values that mattered above all else. Born in 1913 he had a brother one year younger, who was gay at a time when to be so was illegal. My father worked in partnership with his brother and adored him. There has always been a sense of protectiveness within the family towards the memory of my uncle, who died when I was a baby. I have no direct memories of him, but the awareness of having a family member whose very being was deemed illegal has contributed, I feel, to a deep-seated tolerance across the family for those who are not the same. A recognition of the need for kindness and the abhorrence of cruelty extends easily, for example to the horror that anyone could take pleasure from hunting a fox, and the recognition that taking a life through capital punishment crossed a boundary. The legalisation of killing seemed to reveal a terrible inner weakness, society’s need for absolute domination.
It’s all very well to champion moral values but I’m certainly not an expert at it. I may rage quietly at animal cruelty and sign the odd petition, but I’m not even a vegetarian. My cousin is better on that score. Most people have contradictions and none of us is perfect, but there is something that ties us all together, right across the world – I have faith in that.
When looking at some memorial stones on the Sacred Heart High School Hammersmith site some years ago, I remember being told, probably by another member of staff, ‘Oh, don’t bother about them, they’re nothing to do with ‘‘us’’’ – meaning that the stones were nothing to do with the Society of the Sacred Heart. Being here on our site, they felt to me absolutely part of us. They came before us here, and their history (written up this past year) reveals stories of strongwomen – both nuns and the Catholic wives of Protestant Kings of England – who fought to preserve what they believed in at a time when it was illegal.
In Church of England church services that I have attended on and off throughout my life, much of it resonates, particularly the values of Jesus – His standing up for the less fortunate and marginalised in particular. But whenever it would be suggested that we pray for Christians around the world, that felt too controlling – I hated that. What about my good friend with strong moral values, who happens to be Jewish? What about all those people born into the families of Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs who grow up in those traditions and who also have a strong and kind value system? I have no desire to marginalise them.
I remember being questioned by friends when they heard I was taking a job in a Catholic school. ‘You?’ they questioned. ‘Really? The person who purports to be a feminist and tolerant of others? They don’t even allow women priests’ – it’s as if barriers were already set up and everyone was being judged.
Just the same when, having campaigned in my very small way against apartheid, I moved to South Africa with my white South African boyfriend (now husband) just after Mandela became President. ‘Really?’ friends questioned – it’s as if barriers were already set up and everyone was being judged.
Just the same when I wanted to stay at home to look after my children when they were very small. ‘You?’ they said ‘the feminist?’ – it’s as if barriers were already set up and everyone was being judged.
That’s why to me the labels for an individual are far less important than their individual value system. Considering everyone in their own right; showing kindness; walking alongside young people on their own journey of personal development; promoting social awareness and the need to act upon it; standing up for women; valuing intellect; building community. This I love and I feel wholly part of – what a joy to be here and to share in that. Valuing an active faith as well, for this brings with it an individual’s review of their personal value system, and what could be more important than that?
But none of us is perfect and my son recently reminded me that standing up for women is all very well and good, but it can sometimes drown out recognition that men also need standing up for. There can be unbearable societal pressure for men to be physically strong and to provide.
We all have much to learn still, but for me the values of the Society of the Sacred Heart provide a strong roadmap for further personal growth, and I am eternally grateful for that.
Communications, Policy & Development
Sacred Heart High School