A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the biennial conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, an occasion that compelled me, as it always does, to think deeply about our Episcopal identity. That identity informs so much of who we are and how we operate as an institution. It also distinguishes us from other schools in the area. And while some characteristics of our Episcopal identity—our location on the cathedral close, our chapel services, our course of religious study—are obvious, there are a few elements of our approach that deserve exploration.
As I consider all of the ways in which Cathedral School expresses its Episcopal character, three essential attributes stand out: our Chapel services and course of religious study, our commitment to diversity and inclusion, and our approach to outreach and service.
Chapel and Religious Study
Cathedral School uses Chapel and religious study as mechanisms for fostering spiritual understanding in our students. We accomplish this goal by asking the boys to consider not just the Episcopal tradition, and not just their own tradition, but a multitude of traditions. This occurs through an exploration of the world’s major religions in class, through exposure to a variety of religious leaders and practices in Chapel, and through the cultivation of a pluralistic school community that values religious diversity. We believe that this approach provides each boy with an opportunity to forge, at his own time and pace, an abiding understanding of who he is as a spiritual being.
This process also allows each boy to develop a respect for the beliefs of others. As the Rev. Dan Heischman, the Director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools has written, “Better understanding of and healthy interaction between religious traditions can only begin when there is a place from which the discussion proceeds[.]” While many schools intentionally avoid religious discussion, Cathedral demands it. At a time when religious differences serve, far too often, to divide us, it is both reassuring, and I would argue necessary, to be a part of a school that actively engages in religious dialogue and fosters an awareness of and respect for the practices of others.
It is also important to note that Chapel builds our community and develops character in our boys. Rarely do schools have weekly opportunities to gather as an entire community. Chapel provides us with an ethical foundation, a common language, and a shared identity. It allows the school, the teachers, and the parents to approach education in partnership. This setting also provides a mechanism for reinforcing the attributes—like integrity, honor, humility, perseverance, and service—that we value as a community and seek to inspire in our boys.
The result, then, is a community that respects the beliefs and practices of each member and, at the same time, derives great strength from both our religious variety and our shared values.
Diversity & Inclusivity
The effort of Episcopal schools to develop diverse communities represents another essential element of our identity.
We operate with the conviction that all students benefit from an education that occurs within a diverse environment. This is certainly true, as mentioned above, for the School’s religious diversity, and it carries over to other essential areas of our community. We strive to develop a student body that is representative of the demographics of the Bay Area. (Students come to Cathedral from twenty-four ZIP codes; there are seventeen preschools represented in our current kindergarten class.) Socio-economic diversity has and will remain essential to our approach, and Cathedral served as a pioneer among our peers in promulgating its value. Diversity fosters life-long skills, like empathy and understanding, and allows us to prepare our boys to be productive members of a diverse and ever-shrinking world.
Perhaps, though, our treatment of one another is even more important than our diversity efforts. Such treatment, which we often refer to as inclusion, helps establish a community where everyone is respected and has access to the same opportunities. Thus, we work with our students, and increasingly with adults, to recognize the lived experiences of others and to ensure that our treatment of one another is inclusive and equitable. While diversity generates obvious benefits, it is inclusion that creates genuine value in schools.
Service & Outreach
Episcopal schools strive to develop in our students an abiding concern for others. In addition to believing that this is the way we all should live, we also view such concern as an essential attribute of productive adult life. If we seek to develop young men who will make a positive difference in the world, then they must learn to think outside of themselves and act on behalf of others.
Episcopal schools foster this attribute through “authentic” approaches to service. At many schools, service can be driven by the desire to “help those less fortunate.” While there is some merit to this approach, Cathedral’s approach recognizes that students, when in service with others, receive just as much as they give. Authenticity also relates to the type of work in which our students engage. Raising money for worthy causes is important. Working alongside those involved in and benefiting from those causes is even better. It is only by working with others and directly serving others that we develop an appreciation for the responsibilities that we owe to one another.
Certainly, these are not the only markers of Episcopal identity.They represent, however, some of the most fundamentally important elements of our School and help generate educational value that truly distinguishes our approach.