The decline and fall of the Christian Empire

I awoke this morning with an understanding of why there were so few people at Mass yesterday evening – we went to Mass at the the Church of Our Lady’s Assumption and St Gregory (quite a mouthful and seemingly incongruous name) and for a Church that reportedly has an amazing choir, which is why we avoided the morning Mass, that fewer than 20 people attended in an area that was jostling with people. More about the Mass and the Sunday crowds later.

One of the hopes I had with going to Canterbury was to be re-acquainted with Chaucer. I studied Middle English literature when I was at Macquarie Uni in the 1960s and enjoyed the challenge of reading and discussing aspects of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically the Prologue and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Regrettably, our time there was too short for exploring the nexus between religion and literature as a reflection of society. We spent our time looking at the traces of the past from the Stone Age to the scars of World War II (Canterbury was also bombed by the Germans) and only on the morning we left did I purchase a copy of Chaucer’s great work. canterbury-tales-480.jpg

So I awoke this morning with the thesis of a paper buzzing around and linking the Prologue, the crowds in the streets, fewer than twenty at Mass, the stern look on Cranmer’s face on his portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and Vermes’ thesis regarding how St Paul and others had changed the direction of Jesus’ mission. And in all of this I recognised elements of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, particularly my adoption of a position coming out of my imagination constructing a view of the world that makes some sense for me and provides me with a way forward. More about this later.




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After walking for four days ….

Since arriving in Oxford on Thursday, July 9, we have walked for more than 100 hours over two weeks. In that time, we have seen some amazing sights. Oxford is a city of towers and spires and gives testimony to the power of the Christian Faith that has fed – and continues to feed – the intellects and lives of countless thousands of people over more than a thousand years. Indeed, through its commitment to education, Oxford reaches out to people from all corners of the earth and invites them to come and be a part of the learning experience that is uniquely Oxford. 

This scene is typical of the architecture of inner city Oxford. University College dominates this part of High Street, but it is only one of 38 colleges which make up Oxford University.

We came to Oxford to walk in the footsteps of Morse and Lewis, two television characters drawn from the pages of novels written by Colin Dexter. Little did we realise that we would be walking in the footsteps of the thousands of people who have made Oxford a world-renowned place of learning. 

We found Oxford to be a city of bikes and walkers. Bikes and their riders rule the roads.

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Meeting with James Robson

In my research prior to coming to Oxford, I happened upon Culham-St Gabriel’s. CSTG (an easier way of referring to this organisation) was founded after “the union of two trusts, Culham Educational Foundation and St Gabriel’s Trust. These trusts were themselves formed after the closure of two Church of England teacher training colleges, Culham College in Oxfordshire and St Gabriel’s College in Southwark, London” (quoted from their website). This happened in the late 1970s as a result of changes in Government policy regarding tertiary education.

My email to the secretary of CSTG, yielded a response from James Robson, who monitors the research carried out through CSTG and manages their online presence, particularly their RE:Online project. It was this aspect of their work that interested me and so I was happy to accept an invitation to meet with him for lunch at Kellogg College, one of the 39 colleges comprising the University of Oxford.

In the course of our conversation about the work that he does, he revealed that he had been carrying out ethnographic research into RE teachers’ use of social media to help them with their teaching of RE. One outcome of his research was the significance of Facebook as a way of disseminating ideas about pedagogy and content/resources for teaching RE well.

He alerted me to the existence of a Facebook group, known as “Save RE”, which has 2,399 members (when I last checked). It was set up to protest about the removal of RE from the E-Bacc (English Baccalaureate). This change in the national curriculum lowers the status of some “cultural” subjects, including RE, by not including them in the English equivalent of our ATAR. The Facebook group, which started out at a protest about the changes in the curriculum, has evolved into a voice for those who want to be better at teaching RE. It has become a lifeline for some and an avenue for others to reach out and help those who are struggling with teaching well a curriculum that is undervalued by the government.

I had not considered using social media as a way of promoting effective pedagogy, even though I do make use of Edmodo, which has a Facebook feel about it. There is also Google Circles, which like Edmodo, can be targeted towards specific groups, such as RE teachers. 

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In and around Oxford

Oxford is proud of the people who have represented the city with honour and made their mark on the world. From Tamesibugus, a Roman Potter from the second century to Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse – these Oxfordians have been honoured in a timeline placed in the Town Hall. For a re-creation of the timeline, see: An Oxford Timeline

Oxford has many grand opening statements, like the entry to Brasenose College on High Street, the main street of Oxford. This entry isn’t used. Residents enter from the side, a less imposing entry, but for its surroundings: University Church, the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library. 

Most of the famous buildings can be accessed easily from Broad Street. For instance, the entry to Balliol College can be found in Broad Street, along with the entry to Trinity College.



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Searching for the heart of Oxford

We have been here in Oxford for almost two days and spent about 15 hours walking around the city centre barely scratching the surface. What makes the city tick? Why are there so many young people here when it is holiday time? Why is it crawling with Americans and Italians?

It turns out that it is really a city of the young for the young. It is a city built on the desire for education, tertiary education mainly. It is a city of undergraduates and graduates. For instance, Balliol College has almost 400 undergraduates housed in structures that go back centuries … and another structure about 10 minutes away with about the same number of graduates engaged in post-graduate studies.

There are colleges everywhere, not like Kolbe and other colleges in Perth, but substantial structures, solid buildings, meant to last and meant to protect their occupants from the weather and other would-be invaders. They are reminiscent of the architecture of much of the University of Western Australia and the other “early” universities around Australia, such as Sydney University.

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In London

Scene from the fourth floor

We landed at Heathrow at 8.45 pm last night and caught a bus to the Ibis on Bath Road. It was still daylight! We caught a bus to the hotel, walked a little and checked in. So simple and so easily achieved despite the antics of “Mad Max” the bus driver who threw the double-decker around corners as if she were driving a mini. Perhaps in another life she was a stunt double for Mel Gibson … NOT!

The airport turned out to be just a stone’s throw away from the hotel. It is hard to see, but in the photo above, there is a plane taxiing along a runway, which is partially hidden by the tops of the trees and there is a plane in the space between the trees and the red brick building. 

Heathrow is such a busy place! What an understatement! There were people everywhere – and all of us on the move to one place or another. There were buses everywhere and going everywhere, too. There were tourist coaches parked at the hotel. The world of Heathrow is infested with tourists … and we were just two, wanting to get to Oxford as soon as possible.


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Entering the world of social constructionism

This post is the first in a series of posts, which I will write as I prepare a paper on the use of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis in Religious Education. I will present my paper at the International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society at the Arizona State University in March, 2013.

So, what is social constructionism and what does it have to do with Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA) – and what does all this have to do with teaching Religious Education in a Catholic secondary school?

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge. Social constructionists claim that the authority of knowledge is found in social groups or knowledge communities of people who agree on what is the truth. Arthur Warmoth (2000) has written about SC. He quotes Thomas Kuhn, who wrote: “knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all.”

Faith communities can be described as examples of SC. take, for instance, the opening verses of St Luke’s Gospel:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Lk 1:1-4)

Luke describes a knowledge community made up of “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” who handed on knowledge of God’s actions in the world through the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. He places himself in that knowledge community and shares their knowledge with his own social group of Christians in the early Church.

In one sense, it can be said that knowledge is one outcome of relationships. This idea has been developed extensively by Ken and Mary Gergen. In their very readable book on social constructionism, they write: “… as we communicate with each other we construct the world in which we live”.

This view interests me, not just because I believe it to true that we acquire knowledge through relating with others, but also because as a teacher, I am challenged to examine my assumptions about teaching and learning in the light of social constructionism. The context of my teaching provides the parameters for considering what impact of SC on teaching and learning.

I teach Religious Education to students in Years 10, 11 and 12 in a Catholic secondary school in Western Australia. In the senior years, the course is known as Religion and Life, which is an accredited course – each student’s results appear on the certificate of secondary education, which is received on the completion of Year 12. There is a body of knowledge which is shared with my students through this course. At present, this knowledge is created in the context and confines of Catholic education. These are some of the factors I will consider in the posts that follow, but first, let me deal with Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA).


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