THE camel story is such a good one that I want to tell it before anyone else does. Its message is not just confined to camels. A rich old Eastern gentleman with three sons had, by the standards of his village, acquired quite a fortune in camels. Seventeen altogether. Since he was getting no younger he decided to divide his property up in legal form between his three sons.
So he prepared his will in which, curiously, he left his eldest son one half of the camels, the second son a third and the youngest only a ninth. Having signed this remarkable will he promptly died leaving behind him considerable consternation. Without doing serious injury to the camels, how were his wishes to be respected?
The three sons decided to ask for advice from a wise old lady well known for sanctity, simplicity and generosity. She lived alone in a little tent with all her worldly goods and her one and only camel of which she was very fond.
When she thought about the complexities of the will she at last came up with a remarkable suggestion which suddenly solved the whole problem. "Take my camel" she said, and see what happens. So the three sons took her camel and introduced it to their father's 17.
The herd (is this right for camels?) now totalled 18 and a great light dawned on the beneficiaries. The eldest son took nine as his half. The second took six as his third and the youngest took two as his ninth. All of which added up to 17. One left over. So problem solved. They were able to return to the old lady her camel with which she lived happily ever after.
There has to be a moral in all this. New perspectives and new ides can help to solve intractable problems. At the moment talk about education is much in the air and the emphasis is strongly on parents' right to choose almost as if choice could be made independently of the rights and concerns of other parents and other schools.
That can't be. Every choice affects others and no school is an island. The new factor, or the 18th camel, in my thinking about these issues dawned on me early in the 60s. With some responsibility for the reorganization of secondary schools in the East End of London I came across the strange case of the Bishop Challoner Boys' School.
It had places for 60 new boys every year, but it rarely managed to recruit half that number at a time when there was a real shortage of secondary places. Despite a concerned staff and considerable parish interest the Challoner Boys had a terrible reputation. It was a school for no-hopers who had every reason to think of themselves as being at the bottom of the pile. Parents shunned it.
How did this happen? It was obvious really. The Challoner school was creamed off annually — when it came to new pupils by a Catholic grammar school, a Catholic central school and a larger Catholic secondary with better facilities.
The Challoner was suffering impossible odds from a system which made it what it was. It later had to be reorganized out of existence.
I've never forgotton that experience. The right to choose, in a world of finite resources, can also be a right to choose at someone else's expense. Christian education has other values.
Long ago now we were warned in a Synod document about creating an educational system which did no more than create carbon copy images of the kind of citizens that society expects, rather than the new people of the Gospel, education for power and privilege — or education for service and community?
That is the 18th camel in my thinking about education, not only of the state variety, but even more so in the world of independent schools.
Bishop Challoner Boys' School RIP has lessons for us all. A UNIQUE insight into the concern held by this country's priests for those they minister to was provided early last month when Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool attended the final day of the National Conference of Priests and heard from delegates their hopes for the forthcoming Synod on the laity.
It was refreshing to hear how committed priests are to furthering the interests of the laity and to establishing a model of priestly ministry that relies mainly on service and the idea that priests are co-pilgrims as well as guides.
One priest, Fr John Bradley, had the delegates firmly behind him when he stated that the Synod would either "set the pattern" for growth and development or else provide a decisive barrier, well into the next century, to growth in the lay vocation.
The overall impression given, however, was that priests are now willing to share and have as their vocation not just ministering to God's people, but enabling the laity to minister themselves.
There are two sides to the story. Priests must be willing to share and the laity must wake up from the complacent state created by so many centuries of always being on the receiving end.
Bishop Guazzelli of East London, in a recent conversation, put the issue very concisely: "The average parishioner is fast becoming more aware but he has a long way to go. All my life I have been trying to involve lay people in the life of the Church. Up until now the problem has been that priests have not been trained to give responsibility and lay people have not been trained to believe they have it."
Both the priests at the conference and Bishop Guazzelli pointed to the fact that to stifle the activities of the laity in the Church is tantamount to stifling the movement of the Spirit in other parts of the Body of Christ.
Such a handing over of responsibility cannot be confined to gestures of good will and promising theological statements from a body such as the Synod. It must also be translated into a structural handing over of responsibility.
It was surprising to hear the delegates at the conference declare that the laity must have a more executive role in the Church. They must even have a decisive role in the formulation of doctrine, delegates contended.
If the Synod considers such structural change, and moves towards tying into its decisionmaking combine members of the laity who are representative of all aspects of Church life, then the "Sharing Church" which has
been talked about for so long will become a reality.
Fr Brian O'Sullivan, also addressing the conference of priests warned that the laity