EDUCATION: The fruit of faith

by
19 September 2014

Collective worship can enrich schools, says John Pritchard

ISTOCK

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 minimal.

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 collective worship?

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 wrong battles.

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 Christian.

 

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 effective.

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 battles.
 

The Rt Revd John Pritchard is the Bishop of Oxford and chairman of the Board of Education.

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