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‘Collective Worship’ in a Multi-Faith society

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What are schools for? Education is a means to an end, but the prior question is ‘what we are here for?’ What gives our lives meaning and purpose? The religions of the world are evidence of both the importance and diversity of answers in the human quest for truth. So it is natural that our schools should support and develop learning about and from religions.

The law enacted in 1944 and reiterated in the Education Act 1996 and Guidance gives Christianity a privileged position, both in terms of curriculum and in daily acts of Collective Worship, ‘which are to be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’[1]. Some view this as outmoded and inappropriate, based purely on an accident of history, but it can be argued that (properly understood) this is actually a safe-guard which should be welcomed by those of all faiths and none, protecting as it does against the extremes of both violent religious coercion and the de-humanising rule of secular law – extremes which exist in our world today and which have scarred its history.

The DfE has recently adopted a definition of ‘British Values’ which our schools are required to promote: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faith and beliefs. These values arose in our country from its Christian heritage, and they run the risk of being lost if the Christian heritage is discarded. An ongoing commitment to a Christian foundation will provide the following protections:

  • Against democracy allowing 51% to enslave 49% (because of the value placed on all people)
  • Against the rule of law sanctioning what is de-humanising (because of the high value placed on human personhood)
  • Against individual liberty fracturing the social order and drifting into anarchy (because of the value placed on community and social responsibility)
  • Against religious coercion (because of the fundamental importance of free will)

Put positively, a focus on Christianity in our schools should develop and reinforce

  • The importance of community, family and morality, while transcending culture and race
  • A balance between the common good and the value of the individual
  • The existence of truth as a goal, recognising that disagreeing is not hatred
  • The individual’s sense of responsibility for their actions, both positive and negative

How does this translate into Collective Worship?

When the law was first enacted, the country was itself ‘wholly or mainly Christian’, so a confessional approach could have been appropriate. In communities such as the non-faith schools of most London Boroughs, this is clearly not now the case, and yet this element of the law has been retained.  The law says that Worship is deemed to be of a broadly Christian character “if it reflects the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination”[2]. This is more than a secular ceremony and different from a confusing multi-faith amalgam.

So what is the solution – a solution which may be described as Christian, is recognisably worship, and yet includes all members of the community (as although the law permits pupils from non-Christian faiths to have collective worship and RE according to their own faith[3], and has always provided for a parental right of withdrawal[4] and for teachers to withdraw[5] from both worship and RE, the desire for community in a school is a priority)?

Part of the solution is the approach

Worship is to show reverence and adoration of a deity. The approach to Collective Worship should allow those who believe in a deity to acknowledge that; those who do not should be helped to assess their own lives according to their own framework. All should be encouraged to look for commonalities and differences as they share this experience, so as to affirm the integrity of their own religious identity. It is certain that whatever faith background the participants have, Collective Worship in school will be different from that expressed in their own faith community, even if the Christians may recognise the ‘broad traditions’ of their beliefs. 

What might that look like in practice? These are two important ‘broad traditions’ of Christian belief:

  • Christian worship recognises that God created and owns the world and believes that our lives should be devoted to him.   Collective Worship could open with a song or display a picture which celebrates the beauty of creation, so that as the community gathers they are encouraged to reflect on that aspect of God and his relationship with humanity.
  • Christian worship recognises that humanity is imperfect and in need of God’s mercy, which Christians believe is given through Christ. Collective Worship could open with a moment of silence for reflection over the thoughts, words and actions of that day, or display a picture from a current news story which illustrates man’s inhumanity to man and our need for change and forgiveness.

Part of the solution is the theme

The results of a positive focus on Christianity as outlined above make natural themes for subject matter: themes such as the importance of community, family and morality; the balance between the common good and the value of the individual; the existence of truth as a goal and how to deal with disagreeing; the individual’s sense of responsibility for their actions, both positive and negative.

Part of the solution is the stimulus

Christian Worship depends on the Bible. Predominantly using the stories and teaching of the Bible as the stimulus for Collective Worship is both educational and authentic, if it is to be described as ‘Christian’. Of course drawing connections with the treatment of the same themes in the source documents of other faiths is one way to affirm their value in and contribution to the community.

Part of the solution is the space for personal response

Christianity is about relationship rather than a religion. Christians believe that God wants them voluntarily to respond to him, so Collective Worship must allow time for personal response.  Whatever their faith, most people value time for reflection and response.

Margaret Hobbs is Business Manager of the Latimer Trust

[1] Section 386(2), Education Act 1996

[2] Section 386(3), Education Act 1996

[3] Section 387, Education Act 1996

[4] Section 389, Education Act 1996

[5] Section 30, Education Act 1944

This article was first published in the CEN in April 2015.

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