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Religion? Incroyable!

05 June 2015

Dennis Richards gets a French perspective on religious studies

THE school is welcoming a group of French exchange students. Their teachers instruct them to watch the evening news "to learn about the ways of the English". It is King Richard III week. They do their best to understand. 

It would appear that an English king has died in mysterious circumstances, and has been buried in a car park - under a space marked with an R. The year is 1485. His body has been identified by the DNA of his cousin, who lives in Canada, and made the coffin. The students have never heard of "Lezzter".

Next on the news is the story of somebody called Jeremy. Why his botched dinner arrangements are national news is not immediately apparent.

They are delighted by the double-decker buses that bring them to school. They are amused by the ingenious ways in which our students interpret the requirement to wear a school uniform, and appalled by the fact that the lunch break lasts only one hour.


AND they are bewildered when observing my RE lesson.

I blame the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7. Every year, I set off with enthusiasm to change my students' perception of Religious Studies. I am handed the syllabus for St Mark's Gospel, and the battle begins.

The students are initially relieved to hear that this Gospel is short. They like the way that Jesus gets stuck into the rich, and applaud his direct action in the Temple. 

They are mildly surprised to discover that Mark has little to say about sex, when, to them, the Church seems to talk of little else. Punch-ups with the religious leaders go down well, as does its attitude to women, the dispossessed, and the sick. I make a tactical decision to omit Wrede's Messianic Secret. 

Realised eschatology is probably a no-no as well for students whose idea of heaven is a One Direction concert. We get back to the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter is demon-possessed, and to the debate about dogs and crumbs. I have my explanation ready. But still the wheels fall off. And some sadistic examiner will include her in the GCSE exam. She comes up every year. 

Casually, I ask my French colleagues for their opinion. They tell me that, in France, I would have been arrested. Admittedly the students' attention had wandered a bit, but their judgement seemed a bit harsh, even by Michael Gove's standards. The French system is, of course, rigidly secular. While English head teachers are at the school gate checking skirt lengths and top buttons, their French counterparts are on the lookout for crucifixes and headscarves, which must be removed before entering school.


WHERE better to pursue what is becoming an animated discussion than a meal in a typical English restaurant. We take them to a chippie. On a lovely spring evening, there are people outside eating fish and chips wrapped in paper. Ah yes, English cuisine.

They smile knowingly at each other. Inside, they are offered mushy peas, which they assume to be some kind of delicacy. On the drinks menu they spot dandelion and burdock. Unfortunately, a dandelion is pissenlit in French. They draw the line at drinking pissenlit

We are aware from our discussion that both countries are having to deal with religious extremism. In Britain, we saw an off-duty army bandsman assassinated in the street; and in France journalists for an obscure satirical journal were killed in cold blood. In France, millions took to the streets. We set up a working party.

As a result, a ground-breaking change has been slipped in. From 2016, GCSE Religious Studies must require students "to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of two religions". It has taken decades, but we have seen Christian fundamentalism wither on the vine, as education has chipped away at its more outlandish claims.


I SEE no reason why the same should not happen when Islam comes under the microscope, in the harsh unforgiving world of the GCSE RE classroom, with a bunch of cynical 16-year-olds. Teachers will need sensitivity, commitment, and some serious in-service training.

Our French visitors are sceptical. They are entrenched in their position, an absolute separation between Church and State, which, for them, precludes any kind of religious discussion in schools.

Britain has chosen a very different path, believing that the job of schools is to tackle ignorance in whatever field - and that very much includes religion. No need for any more Trojan horses. We are going to face this together and head-on. In school, the Syro-Phoenician woman must now step aside. Her job is done.

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