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Schools need more space. Churches have it. Could COVID-19 bring them back together?

Schools Need More Space

Could places of worship ease the burden of schools looking to reopen while giving students space to social distance? It might not be such an outlandish suggestion.

With space at a premium and places of worship still empty amid concerns of coronavirus spread, some education experts are actively promoting the idea. In New Haven, Connecticut, church leaders have already offered to give up their space to students looking for a place to take online classes.

Concern by those determined to keep church and state separate has meant that the use of “religious spaces” for education has shrunk over the last couple of centuries, resulting in secular school systems becoming the standard for most countries.

But having spent 40 years studying the history of Christian churches and their social outreach, I know there has never been a time in the history of Christianity—indeed the history of all major religions—when religious space was not used for educational purposes.

CATHEDRAL SCHOOLS In the Europe that emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, most formal education took place inside religious spaces. Training of boys to read scriptures was a task typically performed in churches by bishops and their assistants. The first institutions of learning in the Western Christian tradition were cathedral schools. During the day, the back pews were filled with the best and brightest schoolboys being taught the intellectual skills needed by priests.

Later, during the 10th century, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, gave structure to the classes by mandating that a “scholasticus”—or master teacher—be appointed at cathedral schools. By the 12th century, the practice began of establishing corps of priests who lived at the cathedral and spent their days teaching.

These priests—called chapters of canons—established endowed chairs for teachers of different types of specialized knowledge. Chairs were filled by the most famous teachers or professors of the day, including the eminent philosophers Abelard and Albertus Magnus as well as Albertus’ even more famous student Thomas Aquinas, the highly influential 13th-century theologian. Chapters of canons also appointed one of their members as a “dean” to supervise all the different courses of study—a term still employed by universities.

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