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Less religion — more faith

07 June 2013

Religious education should be at the heart of the curriculum, says John Saxbee

THE Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, in his capacity as chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education, has recently pointed to significant changes in the part played by Churches, in relation to sponsorship and governance of church schools, and the support available to them from diocesan boards of education and local authorities.

The exclusion of religious education (RE) from the core curriculum is but one feature of this changing landscape, and churches will need to be increasingly smart and creative if those dimensions of school life associated with RE - such as collective worship and Christian ethos - are to be of influence and significance in the future.

These are the issues that I sought to address in the annual Keswick Hall Lecture, at the University of East Anglia, in 2011, and have now published as a Grove Education Series booklet: Religious Education at the Heart of the Curriculum (Grove Books, 2013).

If matters of religion and faith are to continue to have a formative and honoured place in our schools - including community schools now looking to Churches for sponsorship and support - then we may well need to find an alternative to the kind of provision for RE which has served us so well, but which is now at risk.


CLEARLY, the relationship between religion and faith is complicated. To some people, they are simply two words for the same thing; but to others, they are quite distinct. For example, they might say "I am not religious, but. . ." and then go on to articulate some kind of faith-based conviction, which they believe to be valid, but which is not contained in what they mean by religion. Religion has become something of a toxic brand, while few people think life worth living without faith of one sort or another.

Since writing No Faith in Religion (O Books, 2009), I have become even more convinced that there is too much religion in the world, and not enough faith.

Let us define faith as a disposition of the mind and will to entrust oneself, and one's interest, to the reality, reliability, and benevolence of a just and generous God. Then religion is the formalising of faith in, for example, dogmas, disciplines, authority figures, sacred scriptures, sites, and symbols.

These formalising functions of religion can serve faith, as long as they remain faith's servant, not its master. It is when religion becomes an end in itself, and asserts itself accordingly, that the rot sets in.


IT IS, of course, in everyone's interest that religious studies (RS) remain a core subject, especially in secondary schools. Understanding the part played by religion and religions is critical to making sense of the cultural, social, and political contexts we inhabit. But surely RE can be more than this.

So, let us subject RE to a radical reappraisal, and see it, not as a separate subject sector of the curriculum, but as the very key to the school or college curriculum as a whole. In this, I want to build on the insights of Professor Robin Alexander - who, in the Cambridge Primary Review, promoted the curriculum as more than the sum total of subjects taught and lessons learned - and also on what is meant when C of E schools are encouraged to explore how the curriculum might be "distinctively Christian".

By "distinctively Christian", I mean capable of creating a school or college environment in which making, or not making, a leap of faith, as trust in the reality, reliability, and benevolence of the living God, is a genuine option predicated on the right of every person to make that choice for themselves (an assumption I share with even the most outspoken advocates of secularist and humanist agendas).

WHAT part might RE play in creating and sustaining that kind of environment, in places where people teach and learn?

The President of the Curriculum Foundation, Mick Waters, has written that "Good schools know that the curriculum is everything we do, from planned lessons and assembly to dining, the library, the school garden, the visiting artist and the school band. . . The curriculum is the entire planned learning experience."

Amen to that; and it points the way towards resolving the sterile impasse between knowledge-based educational strategies on the one hand, and child-centred ones on the other. If helping young people to get to grips with who they are, what life can mean for them, and what the meaning of life might entail for other people and the world around them is what faith-based education is about, then the whole school experience is the vehicle for that to happen, and the acquisition of all-round wisdom (including thinking skills, personal and emotional skills, and social skills) is more important than the acquisition of knowledge and information - or, rather, knowledge and information are the servants of wisdom rather than a substitute for it.

THIS is where RE can come into its own, if the curriculum is, indeed, "everything we do". You can come up with as many cross-cutting themes as you like, but there is noth-ing else that can inform a holistic approach to the curriculum in the same way as faith-focused RE can.

This is because it rises above the constraints of naturalistic psychology, and secular ideology, to open up a vision of day-to-day reality transcended by values and virtues, aptitudes and attitudes that are rooted in the great world faiths, and yet not constrained by them.

RE must always be an open-ended exploration of meaning and truth, even if it is most effective when it operates within a specific religious tradition.

Such an exploration, which, when it comes to children and young people's achieving their full potential, goes deeper in order to build higher, cannot be contained within one subject silo called RE -

especially when the content of that silo is restricted to acquainting students with the various forms and formalities of the great world- religions, and their impact on current affairs.

We need to enable RE to spill over into how the whole of life is lived, including the whole life of the school, which provides the setting for the RE adventure.

In this way, RE moves from being a Cinderella subject - in the sense of being left behind, as other subjects get called to the National Curriculum ball - and becomes a servant subject, informing, inspiring, interrogating, and celebrating that living organism, which is a school community fully alive.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln and formerly chaired the Church of England's Board of Education.

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