Churches should not force school worship

London, UK - June 14, 2006 The UK Christian-think tank Ekklesia has said that the latest call from the Church of England and other denominations for more emphasis on legally- enforced ‘collective worship’ in English schools is misplaced.

Ekklesia says that it is wrong to make Christian or any other kind of worship mandatory in plural public institutions, that confusing worship with a collective assembly or with broad spiritual and moral development is a category mistake, and that the churches need to do more education within their own communities instead of expecting the state to maintain a Christian veneer.

This week representatives of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Union signed a joint letter to new Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Alan Johnson MP, calling for greater investment in training and resources for school staff charged with organising ‘collective worship’.

The latest OFSTED review says that the majority of secondary schools are not complying with current requirements. Ekklesia, along with teachers’ representatives, humanists and other religious bodies, says that this is because the provision needs radical revision, and that providing parental opt-outs is not sufficient.

Ekklesia argues that while the churches say collective worship is for the benefit and development of all, any inclusive educational aims are fatally compromised by the legal requirement, stemming from the 1944 Education Act, that an assembly must include an “act of worship” which should be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

Ekklesia’s co-director Simon Barrow explains: “Mandating common worship is inappropriate for public institutions made up of people from different world views and faith backgrounds. It is also a complete misrepresentation of what worship – the freely offered act of a confessional community – is, in any recognised religion.”

He continues: “Sadly, the churches’ attempt to defend the status quo on ‘collective worship’ is another example of the ‘Christendom mentality’ – one which works against the grain of a plural society and, from a specifically Christian viewpoint, undermines the subversive, levelling dynamic of the Gospel, turning it into an establishment creed. We all need a better way forward.”

Ekklesia is also writing to the Secretary of State. It says that what is needed within the publicly-funded school system is an informed, non-confessional approach to education about religious and non- religious life stances; collective assemblies which include and represent different approaches; the development of critical and appreciative thinking among children; contacts with local civic and religious bodies; and provision for the needs and pastoral care of particular communities (both religious and non-religious) in ways which advantage all.

Adds Barrow: “At the moment it rather looks as if church leaders are seeking to salvage their troubled institutions by maintaining a privileged position within the school system – rather than focussing on what they need to do in their own churches and communities to develop their particular vocation and pedagogy. We believe that this emphasis is back-to- front. The churches have a major educational task themselves, because according to recent research their own members are losing the capacity to articulate and communicate Christian faith in a modern society.”

Ekklesia suggests that the role of publicly funded schools is to offer a level playing field, to encourage enquiring minds, to model mutual respect and to provide a range of pastoral support – as well as enabling understanding of different traditions of moral, spiritual, social, cultural and personal development.

By contrast, “the specific job of developing and promoting particular faith understandings is a matter of the performance of religious communities within the civic arena – it is not something that can be imposed on schools which are meant to be there for all. When the state is expected to do the churches’ job, everybody loses – including the churches.”

Ekklesia also notes that some Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (of which there are over 100, responsible for advising Local Education Authorities on the legal provisions) are aware of the problem and seek to offer constructive advice on inclusive assemblies. But as the law currently stands, this valuable educational practice is difficult to implement and has sometimes been subject to criticism from OFSTED.

Ekklesia says that the continued fusion of church and state in England is a major part of the confusion about education and many other current issues. Co- director Jonathan Bartley's forthcoming book, Faith and Politics After Christendom, argues for a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and public life.