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Secular views have no place in RS curriculum, says Bishop of Southwark

10 February 2023


THE Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke against a Bill that would introduce an explicit requirement for schools in England to include non-religious world-views such as humanism in religious education, when the Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Lords last Friday.

The Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by the Liberal Democrat Baroness Burt of Solihull, would change “religious education” to “religion and worldviews”, or RW for short.

Bishop Chessun said that, in speaking against the Bill, he felt like “an officer of the Salvation Army commending temperance to a conference of brewers”, but he believed that the proposed measures were unnecessary.

“First, I stress the value of what remains of religious education within our schools,” he said. “While the outcomes of education remain a contested area of debate in society, the purpose of education and what it does to us receives much less attention. . . My belief is that human flourishing happens in body, mind, and spirit, and that education engages us in each of these aspects, which need to be held together holistically.”

Religious inheritance in Britain was “primarily Christian”, he said. “It has shaped our culture, language, and built environment. Even the shape of our present secularism bears the marks of an earlier Christian humanism and the Protestant Reformation.

“While that is the case, the whole framework of our education system, including that which the Bill calls a ‘worldview’, is the product of the European enlightenment. Consequently, what the noble Baroness seeks in this Bill in terms of a non-religious worldview is represented and embedded already across the curriculum, from arts and social sciences to the sciences themselves. It is taught, imbibed, and breathed in and out virtually every minute of every school day.”

This was not to devalue philosophy or humanism, Bishop Chessun said. Nevertheless: “Religious sensibility acknowledges the spiritual dimension of life in very particular ways. It does so through the inheritance of centuries and the lived experience of the human race. In the three Abrahamic faiths, it rests on claims of historic revelation. This feeding of the whole person is now restricted to a very small part of any programme of education.”

The Bill, Bishop Chessun said, “risks assaulting its identity by adding explicit principles evident throughout the rest of the educational curriculum”.

Others, including the Revd Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a former President of the Methodist Conference, disagreed. Lord Griffiths said that he “wholeheartedly” approved of “this very clear and logical Bill”.

But the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Baroness Barran, expressed reservations about the Bill on behalf of the Government.

It was true that the 2021 Census had shown a significant decrease in the number of people describing themselves as Christians (News, 2 December). “Nevertheless, Christianity remains the most common response in the Census, and it is therefore appropriate that religious education in schools without a religious designation should continue to be, in the main, of a broadly or wholly Christian nature,” she said.

The Government believed that there was no need to amend the legislation. “We know that most schools are already integrating non-religious world-views into their RE provision, and that non-religious representation already exists on many SACREs [Standing Advisory Councils on RE] across the country. We will continue to trust our schools to deliver high-quality religious education that is reflective of all beliefs and inclusive of the local demographic.”

The Bill will now be sent to Committee Stage for consideration.

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