Campaigners for the reform of church schools have warned that the anticipated boost that the Church of England will get to church attendance this Christmas will come at a cost to children.
The Church of England said yesterday it estimates that 1.1 million people will take part in special Christingle services at Church of England churches, cathedrals and schools this Christmas – following a rise of 50 per cent in the last three years.
Christingle services are designed to be accessible to children, when attenders are given oranges representing the world, trimmed with a red ribbon indicating the blood of Christ, and four cocktail sticks bearing dried fruit or sweets to signify the fruits of the four seasons.
Most Christingle celebrations take the form of a church service but they can also take place at schools or other community venues.
Forty years since The Children’s Society introduced the special service to the Church of England, the Church of England expects that anniversary services will draw in more people than ever. The projections come as previously unreported figures from the Church of England suggest that four in ten parents attend church over the Christmas period. Many of these come, the church said in a press release yesterday, through their links to church schools. The Church pointed out that a third of parents visit a church or place of worship during the year through an event linked to their child’s school.
But campaigners for reform of church schools have pointed to the Children Society's own figures which suggest that many parents attend churches simply to get their children into church schools - even though they don't have a faith of their own. A poll by the Children's Society  (which does not support discriminatory admissions policies) last year suggested that a quarter of parents would lie to get their children into a church school. Many parents feel they are forced to do so as church schools can legally discriminate in their admissions policies, giving priority to children who attend churches over others in the community. This is despite the fact that church schools are almost entirely funded by the taxpayer.
The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and Chair of The Children’s Society, said: “Christingle is a much-loved celebration that has become a treasured part of many families’ Christmas traditions. These services powerfully communicate the simple but life-changing message of Christmas, proclaiming Christ as the Light of the World.
“The side-effect of producing valuable funds for the amazing work of The Children’s Society is a very welcome one, given added poignancy as we look upon the infant Jesus and consider the plight of vulnerable children in the UK today.”
But in a report last week, the Runnymede Trust suggested that the discriminatory admissions policies which church schools operate mean that vulnerable children are being excluded from them. It recommended their reform, making church schools open to those who don't attend churches, as well as those who do.
Jonathan Bartley from the religious thinktank Ekklesia, which is part of the Accord coalition to reform faith schools, said: "The Church can not have it both ways. On the one hand it champions its work for vulnerable children. On the other, the policies it operates with regard to the admissions to its own schools clearly have a detrimental impact on children's welfare.
"The boost that the church may get to its attendance figures this Christmas comes at a huge cost. The Church finds itself in a bizarre situation where it is preaching a Christmas message of care for children, whilst simultaneously benefitting from policies which exclude them from its own schools.
"The Church of England, whilst it is raising money for the Children's Society, should also act on the Society's findings with regard to church schools."
Christingle was established by the Moravian Church in 1747 as a symbol of Christ’s light and love, and was introduced by The Children’s Society to The Church of England in 1968. The tradition grew due to churches’ enthusiasm for the simple, powerful symbolism of the Christingle as a way of expressing the Christian message, and the opportunity it gives to encourage donations towards the worthwhile cause of helping make childhood better for all children in the UK.