Inside the Christian School

Evening Post, UK/May 2008

You will not find children cramming for their GCSEs or worried about Sats at this school.

Nor will you be met with a cacophony of noise and excitable children in the school. In fact, there is an unusual silence in one of the classrooms, or "learning centres," at the Carmel Christian School in Brislington.

Rather than the chatter of its young pupils, there is no sound at all.

When a pupil wants the attention of the teacher, they put up a small flag by the side of their booths, called offices. A national flag means, "I need to do something;" a flag with a Christian cross means, "I need help."

When they have finished the work they have been set, the child walks from their office to the Holy Place at the centre of the room and marks their own work. It is called the Holy Place because pupils are encouraged to be honest and critical of their work, as good Christians.

Carmel Christian School teaches children from three to 16 and uses the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme.

Although they do not study GCSEs, the ACE programme is recognised by Ofsted and compares to the International Baccalaureate as it includes a range of subjects.

The 41 pupils spend most mornings working in their offices, in mixed-age classes, using individualised workbooks called PACEs (Packages of Accelerated Christian Education), which pupils work through at their own speed.

Alongside maths, science and literature, more time is spent on Bible lessons than other schools. But just like other schools, pupils sit regular tests and exams at the equivalent of GCSE level.

The day starts at 8.30am with an assembly before children disperse into their individual booths where they carry out the majority of their schoolwork.

Pupils work at their own pace, with individual tutoring. While much of the day centres around religious study, afternoons are spent exploring more traditional subjects such as maths and science before the school day finishes at 3 PM.

There is a greater focus on the theory of creationism, taking the Bible literally when it says the world was created in six days, as opposed to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Head teacher David Owens said the school was "an extension of the Christian home" with a "balanced Christian curriculum."

All of the pupils, with the exception of one, have parents who belong, and pay some of their wages, to the Carmel Centre, a non-denominational Christian organisation founded in Bristol in 1996 by South African pastor Gerri Di Somma.

Mr Di Somma said he received a calling from God to travel to a place in England called Bristol, a place he had never heard of until he arrived in London with his young family.

The school is based within the Carmel Centre in Brislington, where there is a small yard which acts as a playground at break times, but PE lessons take place at a leisure centre in Keynsham, because the school does not have the facilities.

The centre and its school has attracted a lot of attention because of its religious teaching and there are some suggestions that it acts like a cult.

Mr Owens said: "It's easy to be called a cult, especially when you are born-again Christians. "But we are emphatically not a cult, we are trying to help the people in the local community of south Bristol."

"Some other Christians find us strange. One lady told me that she thinks we are aggressive. I think we are just being very open."

"I totally support my pastor?s vision. I am simply trying to make the most of what I have got. Success is inside.

"I had prejudices against this school at first. I thought it was too small. But I soon began to believe in it. It's so off the mainstream, but that's a great thing."

The Carmel Centre, which contains the school, Bible college and church hall, has been at its present location in an old computer business on Brislington Industrial Estate since 2003. It needs new premises, having grown too large for the building.

At the weekend, more than 600 people attend the main meetings at the church. Other organisations at the centre include a design and marketing business, cafe, debt-management centre and also the Miracle Driving School.

Mr Di Somma, who describes himself as the chief executive and senior minister at the Carmel Centre, lives in Emersons Green. He has four children, and officiated at the weddings of three of them at the church, and two grandchildren with one more due soon.

"This has been one of the most exciting things God has ever given me to do," said Mr Di Somma, who has seen the church in Bristol grow from eight people to more than 700.

"It was never in my mind, but it was certainly in God's mind. The first message that Jesus ever preached was 'Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come.'. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom within a kingdom in other words our citizenship is in heaven, so the community that we are building here is a heavenly minded community that has an earthly responsibility, and we are building and establishing that community here in Bristol."

"It has been an amazing walk of faith and an amazing experience with God to see how he adds to the church. It has been a very encouraging experience."

"I love Bristol, it's our home. I will probably grow old in Bristol. There is still a lot of work to do here. God has given us a special heart for Knowle, Knowle West and Filwood."

Popular Cafe Carmel in Filwood Broadway, Knowle West, serves drinks and food, and also has the aim of serving the spiritual needs of the local community. Many of its customers have come to church services at the centre after speaking to volunteer staff at the cafe.

Mr Di Somma added: "I think that God chose Bristol for us because of the need that is found in Bristol. Sometimes, coming in as a stranger, you are not limited to what people have experienced in the past and so you just go in where, so they say, angels fear to tread."

"I am not held captive by social structures. I am not held captive by past experiences. So I just come in with a message of hope, that there is hope and there is a future if you allow God to come into your life."

Julian Clarke, 63, from Brislington, joined the community at Carmel five years ago. He sits on the church?s central committee, where one of his responsibilities is to help write the monthly magazine.

"I have been involved in the Christian faith for more than 40 years," Mr Clarke said. "It has been part of my lifestyle. My wife and I visited two of our children who had come to Bristol, we heard about the Carmel Centre and we wanted to be part of what's going on here and its vision."

"We found here the bringing together of many of the things we were looking for. So we moved to Bristol and became part of the voluntary staff."

Mr Clarke and his fellow "partners" at the Carmel Centre believe everything the Bible says. Children at the school are taught creationism and the community is strictly against abortion, homosexuality and sex before marriage.

Mr Clarke said there was nothing untoward about following the Bible as closely as he and his fellow partners at the Carmel Centre did.

"Yes, the Bible was written a long time ago, but the ideas which it contains still make it acceptable for today."

"In terms of meeting God, it is the same God. God is consistent. He is the person He has always represented Himself to be."

"The big issue of the Christian faith is, I base my life on the word of God?"

Mr Clarke added: "We want to be as free as possible to do the work that we are doing here, work that will really help the community of south Bristol. We are subject to authorities. We cannot do everything we want to do as we are subject to controls. But having said that, we are totally self-sufficient."

"The truth we want to put forward is not a private thing to be hidden away somewhere. Christianity should not be a private thing. Part of our mission is to bring the truth of what we are doing to a wider audience."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.