THEY file in quietly, and sit down on the floor in rows while a
CD plays suitable music. A candle is lit by a chosen child. A story
is told, with interaction, and little fidgeting. A lively new hymn
is sung; a prayer is said; and off everyone goes to start the day.
All is right with the world.
This is collective worship in a Church of England primary
school. It is done well, and with meaning, and I love it. Where I
am less at ease is in a secondary assembly in community schools,
where the atmosphere may be different, and participation
There is often an unspoken battle going on between a gallant
teacher and a fairly sullen body of students. The communal
thought-bubble says: "I dare you to get my interest." As they
leave, everyone relaxes; the play-acting is over. Is this
The requirement for such worship originated in the 1944
education legislation, with which we have lived in varying degrees
of tranquillity ever since. But the question is whether compulsory
worship in non-church schools is justified in a 21st-century
Britain that is so different from the world of the 1940s.
By its nature, worship is a voluntary activity, and it seems
anachronistic in today's pluralist culture to require people to
worship. We are in danger of losing credibility if we fight the
On the other hand, schools these days are driven by targets and
assessments, and need a counterbalance to the frenetic activity
that so easily takes over. Parents and teachers alike value having
a dedicated time when pupils can step back and reflect on the
deeper values and beliefs that undergird the life of the school
community. Such a pause allows everyone to draw breath, refocus,
and remember why and how they belong together.
MY SUGGESTION, therefore, is that we reframe collective worship
in community schools and academies as "spiritual reflection",
drawing largely on Christian faith and values, but also on those of
other great faith traditions. This would release teachers from the
guilt associated with flouting the law, and give them the
opportunity to enrich in different ways this important experience
at the heart of the school day.
Secularists will quibble at my assertion that spiritual
reflection should draw largely on Christian faith and values, but I
am unrepentant. I have had many media debates with representatives
of the British Humanist Association, and the National Secular
Society, and I always make the case that distinctive Christian
values have been seminal in shaping our way of life in Britain.
At the heart of Christianity are values of love, compassion,
forgiveness, sacrifice, justice, mercy, and so on, and they have
found expression in our legal system, democratic institutions,
philanthropy, health care, education, art, music, literature, and
much more. You cannot tie the fruit of faith on to British culture
like tying apples on to a tree with Sellotape and string. They have
grown from the rich, distinctive source of Christian faith.
Of course, other faith communities are with us in growing
numbers, and their riches, too, must be able to influence our
spiritual reflection on what really matters; but our roots are
IN A sense, what I am suggesting is what is already going on in
a large number of schools. They use silence, story, symbols, and
music in creative and imaginative ways. There are excellent
websites to go to for resources, notably www.assemblies.org.uk, run
by SPCK (interview).
The position of church schools and other schools of a religious
character is different. Church schools will continue to worship God
because worship is at the heart of Christian belief and practice.
We should expect our schools to be real Christian communities, and,
for the past four years in my national work in education, I have
been encouraging our schools to be more distinctive, inclusive, and
I am not proposing a change in the law on all this, but I do
think it is time for a grown-up conversation. And I suggest that
the concept of "spiritual reflection" could be of real help in the
debate. We would gain in honesty - and save our fire for the real
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is the Bishop of Oxford and
chairman of the Board of Education.