By Alex Wood
Judith McClure, head teacher at St George’s School in Edinburgh from 1994 until 2009, alone among Edinburgh’s private sector heads, was enormously respected by comprehensive heads for her frequent (but unique) cooperation with the comprehensive sector.
Her memoir, Thinking About Snow (Maclean Dubois, £9.99) explores the moulding of such an astute, and admired educationalist.
She was the third child, and only daughter, of a Catholic detective sergeant in post-war Middlesbrough. Her loving home, where faith was explicit and ever-present, also nurtured her love of learning.
Her 1950s primary schooling comprised interrogation about attendance at Mass, preparation for First Communion, raising money for overseas missions, screening from non-Catholic children, rote learning and incessant testing, ‘an emphasis on accuracy rather than imagination.’
She progressed to a convent, grammar school, with enforced uniform, demanding expectations and daily religious instruction. Her rebellious streak however, found the curriculum repetitive, unchallenging and dull. She rejected university, deciding instead to become a solicitor’s articled clerk. Prior to moving to London to study at the College of Law, Mother Mary Monica, her former headteacher, intervened, suggesting two potential London residences. She opted for More House, run by the Canonesses of St Augustine, nuns dedicated to education as well as poverty, chastity and obedience.
A devout Catholic upbringing and challenging and demanding Catholic schools had left Judith McClure, pictured above right, on a spiritual search for a purpose in life. Her year in More House convinced her that becoming a nun was the means to find that purpose. Becoming a postulant meant that her parents saw her for a monthly hour-and-a-half visit. All mail was read by the novice mistress. Silence obtained for most of the day. Life was impeccably disciplined. Again, a rebellious instinct surfaced. Why, in this well-ordered community of religious women, was there ‘the absolute necessity of a male priest to celebrate Mass’? She questioned the essentially class distinctions between professed and lay members of the community. She noted that the nun’s whip for flagellation, was to be applied to the bare back, ‘as if one were a donkey’.
Judith McClure’s crisis was intellectual, a questioning of absolute obedience and uncritical faith. She was being simultaneously introduced to Her Order’s teaching function, a role in which she revelled, and preparing for University entrance. Conformity was expected on the one hand but intellectual exploration was necessary on the other, all of this when the Second Vatican Council, was exploring a somewhat more liberal perspective than Rome had ever previously contemplated. In these briefly heady days she even ‘considered the reform of religious life and the possibility of female priests and bishops’ but in 1968, Humanae Vitae reaffirmed Catholic teaching on birth control and abortion. ‘Once more women were to be instructed and obedience demanded.’ At the same time Judith McClure obtained a place at Oxford but was instructed to reside, not in College, but in an Oxford convent. The crisis had arrived and she concluded that enclosed religious life was ‘unnecessary, misguided and potentially damaging’. With another nun, she left the convent, and sought a new commitment in the world of education and teaching. The Church’s loss was education’s gain.
Her 84-page page narrative, spanning 24 years, is gentle, restrained and concise. A regimented and exam-focused school system, authoritarian assumptions of unquestioning obedience, the subjection of women by male-centred institutions are all held to compelling account. She offers powerful insights into the psychology of a church which continues to insist that what is taught by the Church must be believed and accepted by all its members. What Judith McClure has displayed, in her book as in her professional life, as admirable and as the courageous antidote to unquestioning belief is the rigorous, unbounded and creative exploration of intellectual pursuits and openness to the widest range of experiences and traditions.
- This book review appeared initially in the Scottish Review and appears here by kind permission of Alex Wood.