*It’s the annual fortnight of examination results. They’ve even reached into our Gospel reading. Peter is clearly sitting GCSE discipleship, for he’s given a multiple-choice question rather than an essay: “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. “Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah… [I say] you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, answers Peter for an A.
*Last week I spent two days in a makeshift call-centre on campus helping out with clearing. I was answering enquiries from students whose grades were not what they were predicted and who were searching for alternative universities. As you’d expect there was a frantic element to it – often parents in the background acting as support as young people tried to plan their next move.
*This year there was the added unhelpfulness that a few days later the government changed the goal posts. I know that I personally declined several students who did not make the required grades for Reading with their algorithm-adjusted results, but who would have met them with their teacher-assessed grades. Reading, like many Universities, will now be trying to navigate this mess.
Tensions continued in many households, including ours, as families then awaited GCSE results. Two days before they were due to be released, the assessment criteria were also revised. We now await the result of BTecs.
*You may have noticed in news reports at the time young people speaking of their lives being ruined. Despite the hyperbole, I have some sympathy for we have created a society where social advancement is strongly linked to academic achievement. In short, there are some professions and routes of life that will not be possible to enter unless you can demonstrate you have achieved certain benchmarks – as I was sadly all too aware, as I told several sixth-formers that they hadn’t met these and couldn’t come to Reading.
The debacle of exam results has shown one thing quite clearly, and it follows on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the year: and this thing is that behind the façade of meritocracy (that idea that individuals are judged on the basis of their own merits) there can lurk deeper social judgments that are beyond a person’s control: judgments based upon a person’s skin colour; assumptions about that quality of students a particular school can be expected to produce. These hidden judgments – by race, by postcode – can skew matters in such a way that the talents of an individual are overshadowed in profoundly unfair ways.
*It’s an insidious form of injustice and perhaps even an unintentional one. In the case of the A-Levels my brother-in-law, who is a statistician, put it this way: ‘sure, you can make a statistical judgment based on previous years about what level candidates at any given school might be expected to produce overall. But it’s impossible to take that figure and break it down and then individual pupils grades. It leaves no room for acknowledging the achievements of individuals.’ (The error of this approach is indicated in the cartoon on the screen: “Average depth 3 feet”, reads the accurate but completely misleading sign).
*Individuals pupils aren’t statistics. It’s the theme, ironically, of this year’s Orwell Youth Prize short-story by Jessica Johnson, A Band Apart (it’s online, by way, and worth a read).
A friend shared their response to these kinds of hidden injustice in the form of an icon and an accompanying version of the Hail Mary prayer:
full of grace and courage,
destroyer of Babylon,
defender against White Supremacy, injustice, hatred…
pray for us who suffer under the powers of algorithms…’
‘Who do you say I am?’ Is a person the grades they have received? As useful as testing may be, examinations (it seems to me) should be the servant not the master of our children. They ought to be a way of tailoring further study to meet the existing needs and talents of a student. They should not be a life-long verdict on someone’s worth.
*It ought to come as no surprise to us that many of the dystopian novels and films produced over the last 20 years have focused on stories that pit young person against young person in some imagined competition where only one can win (think of the Hunger Games). But we read this morning in Paul’s Letter to the Romans that society is best described not as a race, but as a body. There are many members in this social body, all of whom are valuable in different ways, all of whose gifts are essential.
*We, who several months ago found ourselves queuing outside supermarkets desperate for toilet roll and pasta, we who now rely on delivery van drivers (like these photographed by Richard Mackenzie), we have perhaps had a brief glimpse of a different order of social value that the examination system entirely overlooks; and it’s an order of real value that is entirely overlooked in the way we pay people.
*Paul writes, ‘do not think of yourself more highly that you ought… but with sober judgment’: Covid might well have sobered us up to think more clearly about what is really of value. Perhaps, perhaps, there may be lasting adjustments to the way we assign value to particular occupations and those who do them.
*‘Who do you say I am?’ We Christians struggle and yearn for a just society where individuals are rightly valued – in their salary, in their social status, in their legal rights – and with that we find common cause with others who are discontented.
But we add something else to the question of true identity that is distinctive: who God says we are.
*‘You are the messiah, the Son of God,’ says Peter of Jesus. He echoes a statement about Jesus’s identity that crops up at key times in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved child is revealed at the start of his ministry in the baptism, and it is affirmed in the middle of his ministry at the Transfiguration. And alongside these public moments, it seems clear from the intimate way Jesus had of speaking of God as ‘Abba Father’, and from his habit of spending time alone in prayer, that Jesus chose to focus on this identity, to nourish it, inhabit it, make it his own.
Whilst other identities – other value judgments – were passed upon him (‘you are a prophet, the messiah, the son of David’), Jesus chose to accept this particular answer to the question of who he was above all other answers. And, firmly rooted in his identity as God’s beloved Son, he was freed up to transform the lives of those around him.
*Identities, labels, exam results, all these and other voices clamour to assign meaning to our lives – yes: they open some doors and close others. But amidst all these voices which claim to answer definitively the question of who we are, it is shown to us Christians that we can choose to learn to listen, as Jesus did, to another voice: the voice of God. And this voice will proclaim our deepest identity, our true worth, as beloved children.
*I am speaking, of course, about the form of prayer called contemplation. Contemplation is simply to practise learning to listen to God speaking to us as beloved… Each of us will do this listening in different ways, some sat still; others walking in nature; some reading scripture and so on… But the key to contemplation is to listen, again and again, in such a way that all other identities, all other values placed upon us are set in their proper place, and we are freed up, from tugging fears and anxieties, to be our creative selves.
Exams will come and go; successes and (so-called) failures will pass; but in the end, ultimately, we trust in the everlasting arms of the God who truly knows us, and loves us. And this morning that is the God into whose arms we commend ourselves, and our brother Bill. ‘Who am I?’ ‘You are my beloved child’.