The Church of Scotland and Humanist Society Scotland have jointly called for legislation to change 'Religious Observance' in school assemblies to “Time for Reflection”.
The aim is to make these events inclusive of as many pupils as possibly, and "clearly not gatherings where one faith or belief system is promoted over another", says a press release from the two bodies.
The agreement in principle on an issue which has stoked heated debate marks a significant breakthrough -- and a joint statement by the Kirk and a body seeking to give voice to ethical non-believers appears to be a first.
The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, said: “We welcome this exciting opportunity to collaborate with our humanist colleagues in supporting genuinely inclusive Time for Reflection in schools that supports the community and spiritual development of all pupils whatever their faith or belief.
She continued: "Scotland is a wonderfully diverse nation. Regular, inclusive Time for Reflection will enhance young people’s ability to celebrate difference rooted in respect.”
Douglas McLellan, Chief Executive of the Humanist Society Scotland added: “We welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Kirk. We urge the Public Petitions Committee to make strong recommendations for the change of Religious Observance to ‘Time for Reflection.’
"This removes the religious exclusivity of the current system and brings about fairness and equality for all. If this change is made, it will bring current practices in-line with the modern demographic in Scotland,” he commented.
The Church of Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland will make their joint submission as additional evidence to the Petition Committee of the Scottish Government on Tuesday 28 January, when there will be discussion of the petition of the Scottish Secular Society (PE01487) to make Religious Observance an 'opt-in' activity.
They will ask the Public Petitions Committee to urge the Scottish Government bring forward legislative proposals to remove the reference to “Religious Observance” in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 and insert “Time for Reflection” instead.
The move has been welcomed by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which examines the changing place of belief in the contemporary world, arguing that in a plural society religions should neither be established nor excluded.
“It is vital for a healthy society that people of different religious and non-religious outlooks can learn to share public space fairly, collaborate on common values, uphold the rights and dignity of all, and negotiate disagreements with informed respect,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.
“A ‘Time of Reflection’ in schools ought to be a space where these virtues can be put into practice by breaking down barriers, challenging prejudices and providing opportunities for the appreciation of different viewpoints and experiences,” he added.
“The Kirk and the Humanist Society are right that such vital space for reflection in schools should not be restricted on grounds of religion or belief. A genuinely multi-voiced education system is to the benefit of all,” said the Ekklesia co-director.
The Church of Scotland has suggested five principles for the practice of 'Time of Reflection'. These are that Head teachers decide who leads it; outside leaders, including chaplains, do so to assist the school in delivering a Time for Reflection agenda defined by the school, bound by the need to be genuinely inclusive; it should be built on the exploration of sensing as defined by the 2000 review; it should never be confessional in nature nor worship or state sponsored prayers; and the best Time for Reflections are often pupil led.
However, the Scottish Secular Society, which is still pressing for an 'opt-in' rather than an 'opt-out' policy for any period of reflection involving mention of religion, gave a rather guarded response to the joint statement from the Church of Scotland and Humanist Society Scotland.
It said it would back legislative change, but added: "The suggested change in terminology would in and of itself do nothing to prevent the abuses that we reported in our petition and earlier related evidence.
"In addition, it runs the risk of adding to the existing confusion already experienced by parents over what their children are taught in this area," the SSS claimed.
In Scotland, what are called assemblies in England and Wales have been referred to as 'Religious Observance'. The debates around RO have revolved around issues of parental and pupil choice, the extent to which they are confessional or informational, and the scope of the refections and practices involved - specifically whether they offer a range of viewpoints consonant with the demography of the country.
* Full comment from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20018
* Humanist Society Scotland / YouGov survey on RO and RME (Religious and Moral Education) in schools (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.humanism-scotland.org.uk/content/resources/RO--RME-in-Scottis...
* Church of Scotland: http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk