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End compulsory worship in non-faith schools, Lord Harries urges

17 September 2021

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PROPOSALS to scrap the requirement for daily collective worship in non-faith schools, and replace it with inclusive assemblies, won the backing of the former Bishop of Oxford the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, in the House of Lords.

In a debate on the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Burt — the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group — Lord Harries said that the current requirement for mandatory worship in non-faith schools “did not reflect the society in which we now live”.

He said that the current requirement was either “widely ignored” by schools or so widely interpreted that it was “evacuated of all significant religious content”, and that removing it would give new energy to schools to improve assemblies.

A survey by the TES earlier this year suggested that fewer than half of the non-religiously affiliated schools were providing daily acts of worship, although the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, said that schools that failed to comply with the requirement would be investigated.

The UK is the only sovereign state to require Christian worship in state schools, although schools are able to apply for an exemption to offer worship from other religious traditions.

Lord Harries said: “I support the Bill because Christianity is fundamentally committed to free choice. The only good reason for believing in a religion is because you believe and personally recognise it to be true. The pioneers of religious freedom in this country, like John Locke, were Christians, and they passionately believed that Christianity ought to be able to shine in its own light.

“I support the Bill on Christian grounds because I believe that the Christian faith is such a wonderful thing. It could shine in its own light, if people could only do away with all the distortions with which it is usually presented in order to see it as such.”

His successor as Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, told peers that he disagreed with his predecessor-but-one. “If the Bill is passed, one effect may be to make anything that is more than secular assembly not legal and contested in our schools. I fear that one risk of the Bill is that it will weaken the protection around this valuable space for reflection in the school day; that the life of our schools will move in an ever more utilitarian direction; and that children will grow up in ignorance of the possibilities and depth of the faith traditions,” he said.

“The effect of the Bill may be to replace a tolerant, humane, and hospitable Christian faith as the main strand of worship in our schools, combined with other faith traditions, with a largely manufactured cluster of ideas with few roots in our stories or culture, and varying enormously from school to school.

“I do not think that the majority of the nation’s children and young people should be denied the experience of spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development connected to a living tradition, which research shows they value.”

The Bill was having its second reading in the Lords last Friday, and there were many speeches in support from peers. As it does not have the support of the Government, however, it is unlikely to make it into law.

Baroness Chisholm, speaking for the Government, said that there was “no need to amend the current legislation on collective worship. Collective worship is already flexible and inclusive in nature.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said after the debate: “Although there is scope for schools to apply for an exemption from the requirement to provide daily collective worship, depending on their particular circumstances, relatively few overall seem to do so. That’s perhaps not surprising, as schools tell us that daily collective worship has proved a powerful tool in bringing pupils together, giving them a rare opportunity to pause and reflect in the midst of a busy day.

“There is growing evidence that collective worship is valued by people of all faiths and none. Recent polling shows more than half of the adult population say that they pray — 51 per cent; and that more than two-thirds — 67 per cent — say there is value in children attending services for Christian occasions such as harvest festival with hymns and prayers, including 63 per cent of respondents from other faiths, and nearly three-fifths — 57 per cent — of those who do not associate with a religion.”

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