Faiths united by prayer

CHRISTMAS HAS taken a back seat at Wales's first shared faith secondary, according to headteacher John Kenworthy. With two official openings, there has not been much time to celebrate one of the most important dates on the Christian calendar, he admitted.

St Joseph's shared faith school in Wrexham is officially Roman Catholic and Anglican but has pupils from a wide range of faiths - including Pentecostal, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist.

And Mr Kenworthy says it is the cross-religious commitment to prayer that unites his pupils. That is one of the reasons why he is is keen to point out the school should not be considered multi-faith, hinting at division.

"With such a wide range of pupils from different religions, we get annoyed when politicians start shouting about church schools being exclusive and divisive and the cause of racial disharmony in society," he says.

"A lot of them would close us down but it's absolute nonsense."

Once a Catholic high school, St Joseph's was recently officially opened following a pound;10 million refit after joining forces with the Anglican Church.

It is supposed to be 60 per cent Catholic and 40 per cent Anglican - both on the register and governing board. However, the school has opened up its doors to the wider religious community for many years now. Last year's head boy was a devout Muslim who had been at the school for five years.

"Parents of all faiths realise this is a school where children can pray.

The spiritual needs of a Hindu or Muslim are exactly the same as a Catholic," said Mr Kenworthy. "We've just formalised things."

Initially proposals for the new school five years ago were received with caution by teaching staff. Poor standards and falling pupil numbers had led to uncertainty about the school's future.

But Anglican representatives made a strong case for the pioneering school, based on shared faith.

"We had just turned the school around," said Mr Kenworthy, who was appointed in 1997. "We didn't want to risk losing that."

Built in 1959 for just 350 Catholic pupils, a refit and extension was needed to accommodate 225 more in spacious classrooms, sports halls and a new restaurant.

Funding came from the local education authority, Assembly government, the diocese and Wrexham parochial council.

Religious differences on issues such as contraception and abortion are respected, says Mr Kenworthy.

"The biggest problem we have is the eucharist. At holy mass, only Catholics can receive the host."

Year 11 pupil Hayley Barraclough says: "There's so much tension in the world and schools like this help people to integrate."

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