Interview with a Head of Religious Studies

David Burbidge is Head of Religious Studies at a Catholic High School in England. We sat down together for a half-hour interview and covered a range of topics, including teaching and Catholicism. We started off by discussing David’s views on marriage.

Tom Wilkinson: “Hi David, can you just introduce yourself briefly by saying what religion you are, and how strongly you believe in it?”

David Burbidge: “I’m Catholic, and I’d say my faith is very strong, I do believe in God.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Thanks. So let’s start off with marriage as it’s what my website is primarily about. Do you think that marriage helps create a stronger family unit?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah, definitely. That’s a Catholic belief that I’m totally behind, I think the four beliefs about marriage are that you do it in front of God, so it’s a sacrament, it should be life-giving, so you have children, it’s exclusive, so it’s just between you two, and it’s permanent, so it lasts forever. I think that’s a solid foundation for bringing up a family. That’s not to say that unmarried couples don’t bring up children in the right way, but I think marriage provides a security and a stableness to bring up a family. I think some people, when it comes to divorce, get divorced too easily instead of working at it. I think marriage as a family unit isn’t meant to be easy, it’s meant to be a challenge I think. But a lot of people in this day and age think when the going gets tough I need to get out, when that’s not the case, I don’t think.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think people need to be educated about how difficult marriage is beforehand by the Church? When me and my fiancée went to arrange a date for marriage in the Church of England, there was no mention on how tough marriage is sometimes.”

David Burbidge: “I think the Catholic Church is good at preparing people for sacraments, and if you are going to be married in a Catholic Church you go on an 8 week marriage preparation course with the priest and he’ll talk to you about the challenges, make sure you’re ready. He’ll talk about the fact that you’re probably not going to be good-looking in 20 years, your partner might lose money. What would you do then? If they get ill, how would you support them? The challenges of bringing up a family and things like that. I truly believe that people who get married in the Catholic Church are educated enough to know what they’re doing and what they’re letting themselves in for. That’s why I think, if you go to all that trouble, and you understand that, then you shouldn’t really get divorced unless it’s for something serious like abuse.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Interesting, I had no idea the Catholic Church did all that. It’s made me wonder if there are fewer divorces in the Catholic Church than in the Church of England. I’ll have to try and find out about that. As you think marriage helps create a stronger family unit, do you think the government should reward that? Perhaps with more benefits for married couples for example.”

David Burbidge: “I don’t have a problem with that, I think marriage is the backbone of society, I think if you have a stable family and you bring up children right, then it creates less problems in society. I think problems come from broken families, so if there’s any incentives that the government can give to people getting married, then that’s a good thing.”

Tom Wilkinson: “You don’t think people would then get married to chase the incentive?”

David Burbidge: “There would be that problem I suppose, but then it might make people think about their relationship a bit more and you know, think about well actually, is this for me, before they go into it.”

Tom Wilkinson: “OK. Should marriage be reserved just for religious institutions, or do you think people should be able to get married without any interest in religion, without belonging to any Church?”

David Burbidge: “That’s a tough one that, because as a Catholic I think it should be done in front of God, you’re not only making those promises of permanence and exclusivity to your partner, you’re making it to a higher power basically, so you’re answerable to both. When I get married I’d like it to be in church in front of God. I’m aware that marriages take place without any religious basis at all, I don’t have a problem with that but it’s not something I would choose. It’s each to their own in that respect I think. But I think it should be done as a sacrament in front of God, but at the same time there’s the problem that if you make it purely religious then people won’t get married.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So you think it should be up to the person?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah it’s always going to be up to the person, I don’t think you can make people go to church and get married, because that would discourage many people. But for me, I think the promises you’re making are binding, and to make them binding they should be in front of God. If you make a promise to a person, you can break it basically, but I think if you do it in front of God, there’s that extra incentive not to break it.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Right, I can see already that you are a strong Catholic by your views. Tell me a bit more about your religious beliefs. How much of the bible do you believe?”

David Burbidge: “I think a lot of the biblical elements are meant to be symbolic, so I don’t believe in all of the stories in the Bible. I do believe in the basis of the Catholic religion, which is to love your neighbour and to treat each other as you would want to be treated.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So you’re comfortable just taking what you consider the good lessons from the Bible?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah, I think a lot of Catholicism is very outdated, even as quite a strong Catholic myself. I think a lot of the beliefs and values held need to be changed in order to live by the premise of love your neighbour.”

Tom Wilkinson: “OK, so let’s pick one commandment, you’ve said you don’t believe them all, but what about ‘Thou shall not covet’, which is a commandment to tell you not to even think about something. Do you think that’s a good one?

David Burbidge: “I think the Ten Commandments are there to be followed as best as possible. I’ve broken many of them in my time, so I do get jealous of other people’s possessions, I do look at women and think yeah, I quite like them, when you’re not supposed to. I use the Lord’s name in vain, you know. But I haven’t murdered anyone. I think we should try to keep to them as much as possible. But at the same time, I think they are a rigid set of rules that don’t apply to every situation. So for example, let’s take abortion. Abortion is considered murder by the Catholic Church, but if the woman’s life was at risk from going through with the pregnancy, then you may have to murder the foetus to save the woman’s life, and that would go against the Ten Commandments. So you’d have to break that commandment in order to do the most loving thing. So I think some of the commandments go against the basic premise of Catholicism, which is to love your neighbour.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So it’s just a basic guide?”

David Burbidge: “I think it’s a hard set of rules to follow, but I think it contradicts, it doesn’t apply to every situation, especially in modern day, and I think they can contradict what is the best thing to do in a given situation. Let me give you another example. If someone was going to put poison in a reservoir that would kill thousands of people, and you had one shot at that person, what would you do? Break the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, which would save thousands of people, or keep by the commandment and let them poison the reservoir. So that’s how it can contradict.”

Tom Wilkinson: “You make a good point. So let’s take another issue. The Catholic Church is against same-sex marriage, what about you personally?”

David Burbidge: “I think the Catholic Church is outdated on some things, for example contraception, and I think the Catholic Church’s view on same-sex marriage is that it gets in the way of life. I think in my view you can still be Catholic and say contraception should be used to stop the spread of AIDS. In terms of homosexual marriage, the Catholic stance on that is there’s nothing wrong being homosexual, but the act of sex is a sin. I don’t think that’s a viable stance, because if you love someone, you want to make love with them, so you know, the next step from that is same-sex marriage. I think if you find someone you love, then the argument is you should be able to have the same rights as a man and a woman. But the Church is based on the fact that you should be life-producing, and a same-sex marriage can’t produce life. Although, I’d be willing to accept that when people love each other, they have sex with each other to show that love, which I don’t think there’s anything wrong with. But it doesn’t produce life, which a loving marriage should.”

“I think if you’re a Catholic, which I am, and I believe that God created everybody in his image, and uniquely. I think if you’re looking at the fact that people are homosexual and are created that way by God, why shouldn’t they express their love to each other. I think that’s a valid argument as a Catholic, and in many ways if you don’t let people express who they are, then you’re going against what God wants for them, and you’re denying God’s gift of creation to that person. So that could be another argument to say that well actually, if you are of the same sex and you fall in love, you should be able to have the same rights as a straight couple. There’s the argument that same-sex marriage doesn’t produce life, but then why would God create gay people, so that would be another argument to support my view.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So you think it should be up to the person? If they want to marry, they can, even if both partners are the same sex?”

David Burbidge: “I don’t think the Catholic Church are going to stop same-sex marriage, whether same-sex marriage will happen in the Catholic Church, I think that’s going to be a long way off.”

Tom Wilkinson: “I was going to ask you that actually, do you think with enough government pressure and the general public, do you think they will have to give in one day?”

David Burbidge: “Knowing the Catholic Church, they’ll go against what the government and the public want. They haven’t changed their stance on contraception. They haven’t changed their stance on abortion, even circumstances where the woman might die by having the baby. And they haven’t changed their stance on divorce, even when staying together might cause the abuse or even death of one of the partner’s.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Really? The Catholic Church still thinks they should stay together, even if someone is getting beaten up?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah. So the Catholic Church takes a hard line, it wants to follow the Ten Commandments and be as faithful to them as possible. I think it will be a long way off, if ever, that they accept same-sex marriage, because it doesn’t produce life. I think that’s the main sticking point. Although I myself have no problem with two people loving each other, whatever sex they are, as well as having sex with each other. But I think the Catholic Church would, because it doesn’t produce life, in the same way it has a problem with contraception because it stops life, even though it’s quite happy for AIDS to spread throughout the world.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Fewer and fewer people are religious, fewer and fewer people are going to church, can the Catholic Church afford to stick to these rules?”

David Burbidge: “No I don’t think so, for me it has to change with the times. If you want to do the thing that’s gonna be the most loving thing to do in a situation, these rules don’t attest to that really. As I said, I have a big problem with their view on contraception, I think contraception should be used to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS in particular. I think you’ve got to take into account situations in abortion, I don’t think it’s cut and dry saying you shouldn’t abort because it’s murder, there are situations where it’s maybe you have to, and the same with same-sex marriage.”

Tom Wilkinson: “How does that make you feel as a Catholic, knowing you have these beliefs but your religion disagrees with you?”

David Burbidge: “It makes me frustrated, because I know that people are losing patience on this hard–line stance. It’s kind of fortress Catholicism, the world thinks one thing, but Catholicism is standing out, standing on its own in portraying these beliefs. I sound quite anti-Catholic here but I’m not, I am a Catholic, I just think that things need to change.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Have you ever thought about not being a Catholic?”

David Burbidge: “No, because my belief is based on the fact that there is a god, there is a heaven, the way you act in this life will be judged by God and I think that is based on the golden rule, which is to treat each other as you would like to be treated. In terms of these rules that are in place, basically that are based on the Bible, I’d like to see a pope that would come in and bring something revolutionary into those areas. I can see it happening with contraception, and views on abortion and euthanasia if you like, but maybe not with same-sex marriage.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Right, so you think the Church needs to modernise?”

David Burbidge: “Yes.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Fewer people are getting married each year, might this ultimately be the end of the Church?

David Burbidge: “No I don’t think it will be the end of the Church, fewer people are getting married each year, which I think is primarily because of the cost. Also I think it’s accepted in society these days that you live together first, you try it out, then maybe in the future you get married. A lot of couples fall into the way of life where they feel they don’t need to get married, which is the way society is at the moment. You can have two people living together without being married. You know, I’m Head of R.E., and I’d be within my rights as a head of R.E. in a Catholic school to live with someone without being married. No one professionally can say anything about that. A couple of decades ago, that would have been frowned upon. I think it’s accepted these days that you live with the person first, and see if it works. Whereas my mum and dad, they got married before they lived together, and they were thrown into it if you like. So I can see why people who live together don’t get married. They might say it’s just a bit of paper, we love each other. I don’t think it will be the end of the Church, I think it will always be there despite the numbers of people getting married. I think it’s the number of priests that will affect whether there’s a Church or not. They’re decreasing at a faster rate than marriages I think.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So what do you think the Church will be like in 100 years time?”

David Burbidge: “I think it will still exist, I think it will still have the same views, in the Catholic Church anyway.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think it will be smaller?”

David Burbidge: “I think it will be emptier, I think countries will become secular like the UK has. I think the Vatican will still be embellished with expensive furniture and gold and jewels, that if sold could solve a lot of the problems in the world, which I have a problem with. I think to be successful it will have to change, and I don’t think it will.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think there will still be a church in every parish? Do you think parishes will have to be made bigger?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah, it’s happening now that churches are being merged, one priest can run two churches. I think one of the main things, which I’m discussing with my Year 9 at the moment, is whether priests should be married. They’re not allowed to be married, or have a family, or have sex. The Church of England is making progress because they allowed women priests. My view for the Catholic Church to be successful is that it should allow women priests, and allow priests to get married. I think this for two reasons. Women played a massive role in Jesus’ life, in terms of helping him during his crucifixion, and finding him when he was resurrected. They were the first there. Men were often proven to be unreliable friends of Jesus, like Peter and Judas. The second reason, I think if priests were married they would have a better understanding of life and the problems that people come to them with. I think it’s quite hypocritical for priests to listen to people’s problems about marriage, and educate them about marriage, when they don’t know anything about it themselves. I’m a person of faith, and I think it would be more attractive for me to become a priest if I was allowed a family and to get married.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think this has a caused a lot of the recent abuse scandals that have come to light (priests not being able to marry)?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah I think that’s an issue. It’s controversial, celibacy, because it goes against a human’s needs. Perhaps those issues are the way a few priests are satisfying those needs. But I think we would definitely have a more transparent Church if priests were married, and people, no matter what sex they were, could become a priest. Plus I think women are more sensitive and sympathetic to many issues. I think a lot of Catholic priests have defected to the Church of England because marriage and female priests are not allowed.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think your pupils are taught enough about marriage? Are you happy with what you get told to teach them?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah totally, we do a module in Year 9 on marriage and family life, we talk about the four different types of love – family love, lustful love, the love of things and objects & unconditional love, the marriage ceremony. We teach it at GCSE as well. I think they do get taught enough about it, and when I ask pupils what their ambitions are for the future, they want to get married and have a family. That’s an ambition. Pupils from successful marital homes and broken families say the same, they want to get married and have children. I think we do teach it well in a Catholic school, I’m not sure how it’s taught in a non-Catholic school, but I don’t think it’s something that we want to make pupils do when they’re older, but I think it’s something that we think they should know about, as an option.”

Tom Wilkinson: “You don’t think they should be taught extra things? Or some things you teach them are wrong?”

David Burbidge: “We teach them two sides to contraception, the arguments for and against contraception, we don’t tell them what to believe. We tell them the benefits of co-habitation as opposed to marriage, and the benefits of marriage as to co-habitation. So we’re not telling them what to believe, we’re just making them aware of both sides of the argument. When we ask them, most pupils say they want the romantic love story if you like, they want to get married, find someone they love and have children. Pupils in Year 9 (aged 14) all say that, that’s quite young to be looking at the future and saying I want this.”

Tom Wilkinson: “That’s a very mature viewpoint. Another question, how do pupils and parents respond to R.E.? Do they think it’s an important subject?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah, in our Catholic school we’ve got a department of five specialist R.E. teachers, we’ve got 10% of the timetable, so each kid has three 50 minute lessons of R.E. a week, where in some schools they only get 5% of the timetable, or less. We’re seen as a high-achieving academic subject. We achieve 90% A* to C at GCSE. At GCSE level R.E. is compulsory, and 90% of those people get a high grade pass. I think it’s popular, I think there’s room in R.E. to debate certain topics that you can’t do in any other subject, we don’t force-feed Catholic views, we just teach it along with the opposite views, and I think parents and pupils see it as an academic subject. They want to do well in R.E. and they want a good grade in R.E. Each year we’re seeing an increase in pupils going from our school to a sixth form college, who take R.E. for A-level. We had 20 pupils take A-level R.E. last year. We have all the bits around it like retreats. Kids love retreats, like Castlerigg, and Christmas and Easter liturgies that kids get involved in. So we’ve got all that, which makes it popular and it promotes R.E. throughout the school. The head teacher in our school says that R.E. is the most important subject, it’s the first thing on every list, above maths, science, english.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Do you think that’s the case in many schools?”

David Burbidge: “No, in Catholic schools it should be, because I think R.E. has a role in producing good, functioning adults, promoting the love-your-neighbour kind of attitude. In some ways I think that’s more important than getting A’s and A*’s, if our subject can be used to promote the formation of good, well educated pupils and adults in society. I think that’s more important than getting grades, and I think we’re very much involved in that. If you look at maths, maths doesn’t have room to look at the human condition, and how we can improve ourselves as humans, but R.E. does. I think, from a biased point of view, that it’s the most important subject in the school. It’s a flagship kind of school.”

Tom Wilkinson: “So it’s much more than R.E. then? It’s about being a good person?”

David Burbidge: “Yeah, it’s following the be-attitudes in the bible, which are a set of ideals and values that we should all live by. I think if we can get pupils to treat each other with love and respect and empathy and things like that, then we’re doing our job. So I think it’s about the development of pupils as a person, not just as an academic subject, which makes it worthwhile I think. I’d hate to just teach an academic subject, I’d love to do both, which I think I am doing.”

Tom Wilkinson: “Thank you David, that was a great interview with some enlightening answers.”

David Burbidge: “Thank you.”

Interview with a Head of Religious Studies
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