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Compulsory worship in schools should end

by
15 October 2021

It is time to change a law that threatens to bring the C of E into serious disrepute, argues Richard Harries

THE present law requires all schools that are not of a designated religious character to have a daily act of worship. I believe that the maintenance of this requirement in present circumstances degrades the whole concept of worship, reinforces the indifference with which people now treat it, and brings the Church of England into serious disrepute. For the faith’s sake, the Church of England should take a lead in seeking to change the law.

Worship expresses a belief that there is an eternal and underlying first cause of all secondary causes who is good, all good, our true and everlasting good. This is a life-changing conviction, and cannot be regarded as a matter of indifference. To believe in God is to believe in a reality that, by definition, makes a total difference to the way one sees and tries to live life. To impose such a belief on a community that mostly does not share that belief, and then to have the law imposing it widely ignored, is to reinforce the indifference to worship which is such a feature of our society.

I am not opposed to compulsory worship for institutions in principle. When we were a unified or nearly unified society, it was natural that all schools should begin with an act of worship. Then, it represented the belief of the majority of the population. What is obvious is that this is no longer the case.

As the law stands, worship has to be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”, but our society now includes millions of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. Even more significant is that about half the population say that they have no religion, and that the percentage is much higher for the younger generation. So compulsory worship no longer reflects where we are as a society.

 

ONE effect of this is that the obligation to hold a daily act of worship in schools without a designated religious character is either ignored or so widely interpreted as to make a mockery of the law. A fair number of head teachers will be agnostic and have no interest in acting according to the letter of the law on this issue. Indeed, according to one survey, 53 per cent of primary-school teachers said that their schools did not offer collective worship.

It is quite right that schools of a designated religious character should continue to be allowed to have a compulsory act of worship as part of their daily way of life. That is what parents who send their children to them sign up for, and I am glad that the Private Member’s Bill by Baroness Burt now before Parliament, abolishing compulsory worship for schools that do not have that status, maintains this requirement for those that do (News, 17 September). It also allows for purely voluntary acts of worship on the premises of all schools. But schools without a designated religious character are another matter altogether, and should rightly be treated differently.

The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, has argued that daily acts of collective worship are “a powerful tool in bringing pupils together, giving them a rare opportunity to pause and reflect in the midst of a busy day”. But there can be opportunities to pause and reflect without the obligation to worship the Creator. Indeed, the present Bill specifically lays down in law that there must be such opportunities.

If the compulsory worship element were abolished, then schools would apply themselves with much more imagination and energy to providing assembles aimed, as the Bill says, at “furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils regardless of religion or belief”.

 

THERE is only one good reason for adhering to a religion, and that is because it is true and you freely recognise this to be the case. Leaving people free to choose their faith is fundamental to Christian conviction. Indeed, we can ask why any society should want to deny it, as too many do in the world today. Do they fear that, if people were left free to make up their own minds, their own state-imposed religion or ideology would simply crumble away?

I supported this Bill because of my confidence that the Christian faith can shine in its own light. It is degrading to religion to have assemblies in which worship is meant to be imposed, but is, in fact, widely denied in theory and practice.

On this issue, there is huge confusion between the law requiring a daily act of worship, and religious education, which, again, has to be of a predominantly Christian character. I am a passionate believer in the latter. RE needs to be strengthened.

I believe that there might be more appetite for doing this in schools if the requirement for a daily act of worship was replaced by an assembly, which as, the Private Member’s Bill puts it, would be designed to promote the spiritual, cultural, and moral development of the child. Such assemblies would still be able to have, for example, carols at Christmas, or a Muslim talking about prayer in Islam — but these would not be acts of worship, but experiencing aspects of our culture.

At present, the Government argues for the retention of worship in all non-religiously designated schools. My guess is that it does so because it believes that this is what the Church of England wants, and it does not want a row. But is this really what the Church of England wants? It would be an act of integrity to take a lead on this: not a sell-out to humanists, but a witness to Christ the Truth.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

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