I wonder how you feel about rules? Do you believe that they are a necessary aspect of life, which ensure the smooth functioning of society, or on the contrary do you feel that they are a cruel infringement of your freedoms and human rights?
When I was appointed as Headmaster of St Benedict’s a friend of mine gave me a book. This book is called the Rule of St Benedict, and I read it bit by bit while I was preparing to move here and start my new job. As I’m sure you know, in his Rule Benedict sets out the ways in which he thinks the monastery should function, and how the abbot and the monks should behave to ensure a harmonious and happy community.
We see rules in operation in more or less every walk of life. In sport for example, they are essential: imagine a game of rugby in which there are no lines and the players can go as far as they wish, or a game of hockey in which the players can pick up the ball and run it into the goal. What would happen if one player in a chess match decided her bishop could move sideways? If you watched any of the Rugby World Cup at the weekend you will have seen quite a lot of controversy around the application of the rules, if not the rules themselves, particularly around head contact and the sanctions for that, England fans perhaps feeling aggrieved that Tom Curry was given a red card when others who seemed to commit similar infringements got off with a lighter punishment.
In creative pursuits too there are rules, although these have been challenged by artists who want to push back the boundaries of their art. For example, for centuries it was believed that you simply didn’t play or write notes outside the key you were playing or composing in. In painting you didn’t paint over the edge of the canvas on to the frame, and people should look like people; in drama you didn’t look at the audience or at the camera in a movie. But some creative women and men deliberately chose to break the rules and thereby create something exciting and new, the effect being what one writer famously called “the shock of the new.” The composer Claude Debussy said, “works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” However, I think that one thing that all these creative rule breakers had in common is that they had learned the rule book of their art form - learning their scales, learning how to paint things as they look, directing conventional plays or films - before they decided to throw it out of the window, so to speak.
However, I would like to suggest that, just as in sport rules create the conditions for a free expression of skill, in a school community rules can actually create freedom. This might seem an odd thing to say, but it is what we call a paradox, by which I mean something which appears nonsensical but is actually true. By abiding by the agreed the rules of the institution we are enabled to go about our life at school calmly and freely without being harassed, bullied, knocked over or made to feel threatened or unsafe. That said, we should not slavishly follow unjust rules: as we saw with St John Chrysostom we must be courageous enough to stand up to injustice; as the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, but principles are.” If you do believe that any of the school rules are unjust then do raise it with your School Council reps or one of the Decans and we can discuss it.