Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Charlotte Mason Poetry had recently released in audio-form a series of articles by Benjamin Bernier entitled “Education for the Kingdom” (these articles were originally published on their website in 2017). The five articles in this series form one argument. Bernier, an Anglican minister and homeschooling parent, has done extensive research into the religious basis of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. This series presents his argument that Charlotte’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Christian religion and that it is a distinctly Christian philosophy of education.

Bernier has clearly done his research. He shows specific authors and their writings that he believes influenced Miss Mason and makes a compelling case for each. I have no quibble with his scholarship and am very grateful to him for the work he has put in and his willingness to share it. Nor do I disagree with his conclusions. All in all this is an article well worth reading for anyone who uses Charlotte’s methods or who is interested in Christian education (and I do think reading is probably a better option than the audio versions as there is a lot here to take in). What I would like to talk about today is not Bernier’s scholarship but what we do with the information he has given us.

Miss Mason sought to develop a disticntly Christian approach to education. What Bernier shows is that that approach is heavily influenced, as it should be, by Miss Mason’s own church, the Church of England.

“In order to properly understand Mason’s philosophy, it is important to grasp the essential socio-religious context of her life and work, whch in this case happens to be the Anglicanism characteristic of the late-Victorian era England.” (Benjamin Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1,” from charlottemasonpoetry.org, Feb. 18 2017)

Bernier goes on to argue that as the Anglican Church of the time encompassed a wide range of opinions that the form of Christianity embodied in Miss Mason’s philosophy is one that focuses on essentials, what he calls, following C.S. Lewis, a “mere Christianity.”

Bernier argues that Miss Mason’s goals in education were intrinsically religious. He shows from lesser known early writings that her concern in education was mainly apologetic. Specifically her motivation was to guard to youth of her day against the then very new theories of Darwinism and the Documentary Hypothesis [1] which threatened traditional faith assumptions (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings,” Feb. 25, 2017). He maintains that she never abandoned the faith-basis of her method though she was forced, as the method became more popular and widely used in different contexts, to downplay the overt religious elements:

” . . . the Christ-centered foundation of Mason’s thought was not diminshed one bit; it simply became less overy and less conspicuous to a general audience when her message was repackaged in the hope of influencing the evolving national system of education as such a crucial stage.” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 5, Enthroning the King,” March 18, 2017)

Note that Bernier here calls Mason’s philosophy “Christ-centered.” Elsewhere he speaks of the gospel foundation of her work. Mason herself spoke of the gospel principles of education which she derived from a few passages from the Book of Matthew. “As far as I have been able to trace,” Bernier says, “Mason was the first Christian educator to define a connection between these words of Christ [in Matthew’s gospel] and a philosophy of education” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings”).

Bernier thus makes three points that we need to consider:

  1. Mason’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Anglicanism which is itself a kind of “mere Christianity.”
  2.  As Mason’s philosophy reached a wider audience, its Christian foundation became more covert to the point that many in the modern CM movement are unaware of it altogether (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 1”).
  3. The biblical foundation for Mason’s philosophy is found primarily in certain words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.

Given these points, those of us who use or are considering Mason’s philosophy need to ask ourselves a few questions starting with: Is Mason’s Christianity my Christianity? If you are not Christian, Bernier shows clearly that Mason’s philosophy is not for you as it cannot be separated from its Christian underpinnings. If you are Anglican (as Bernier is) you can probably use Mason’s methods in good conscience. If you are from another Christian tradition, you need to consider what her faith is and if this “mere Christianity” is enough for you. Bernier points out, for instance, that Mason renounced the authority of the pope (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 3, Christ Himself for Himself,” March 4, 2017). If you are a Roman Catholic using this philosophy, it may be that you can ignore her personal views and still use her methods. Or maybe not. But it is an issue that needs thought.

Personally, I am a reformed (read: Calvinistic) Christian. I have certain views of human nature (total depravity) which do not gel with Mason’s approach. I have blogged on this many times now (see this post and this one, for example) so I will not rehash all the arguments but I believe that when Charlotte states her infamous second principle — “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil” (“CM’s 20 Principles,” from Ambleside Online) — that she means this as a spiritual statement, that this statement is foundational to her philosophy, and that this view is incompatible with reformed Christianity [2].  Mason’s “mere Christianity” is not simply the core essentials that all Christians would agree to but is a kind of Arminianism (though no doubt it is not far from the faith of many evangeicals today). [3]

I also have concerns about the biblical basis of Mason’s philosophy. I do not deny that she derives her approach from the gospels, but I do question her use of these texts exclusively. There are many other passages in the Bible which speak of children and topics related to education, both in the Old and New Testaments (see this post, this one, or this one).  Though I doubt they had red-letter editions of the Bible in Mason’s day, her selection of these passages from Matthew, and only these passages, exalts the words of Jesus there recorded over other parts of God’s holy and inspired Word. And, as I discussed here, I do not even particularly like how she interprets and uses these passages.

“Education for the Kingdom” is well worth reading. Bernier’s scholarship is excellent. It is an article (or series of articles) that demands a response, however. Bernier shows us clearly what the religious basis of Mason’s philosophy of education is. But, if you are using or considering using this philosophy, it is not enough to know what it is, you must also ask if it is compatible with your own beliefs. Are Mason’s foundational ideas your own? And if they are not, is there enough commonality that you can use her methods as written in good conscience?

Nebby

[1] The Documantary Hypothesis is a theory about the origins of the biblical text, specifically the Pentateuch, which posits different authors for different sections and tends to chop the biblical text up into parts.

[2] Bernier quotes Charlotte Mason’s “A Catechism of Education Theory” which says: “‘What is the part of man? To choose good and refuse the evil'” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017). Though the immediate topic is education, the discussion is of spiritual food and it is hard to take this as anything but theological statement about man’s ability to choose.

[3] Charlotte Mason’s view of man’s state and abilites seems to be tied to the phrase “redeemed world.” Bernier, quoting Mason, also uses the phrase: “Christ is shown to extend His light and life over every sphere of knowledge and practice in this ‘redeemed world'”  (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017).  I have discussed Mason’s use of the phrase and its possible meaning in this post.  I do not at this time feel completely confident in my grasp of what Mason means when she speaks of a “redeemed world” but I suspect that there is some odd soteriology underlying it.

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] Poetry (Part 1 of Bernier’s series can be found here; I discussed these articles previously in this post). Bernier says […]

    Reply

  2. […] was a solid Christian (though I have some theological differences with her; see for instance, this post), her philosophy of education is somewhat deist in that it assumes a God but does not assume a lot […]

    Reply

  3. […] man and of knowing. It is not irrelevant to CM’s approach, then, that she was Anglican (see this post on Anglicanism in CM).  If you are not Anglican, or even Protestant, this does not mean that you […]

    Reply

  4. […] would point you particularly to this earlier post I did on Miss Mason’s Anglican foundations. There I very briefly reviewed Benjamin […]

    Reply

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