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Teaching God – Angela Tilby

July 23, 2015

ATThe author has become controversial, not least from some daft, ill-thought-out views in her Church Times column.

However, I have a lot of respect for her because she has held down some very important jobs in secular society, not least in the BBC and she writes intelligently when at length (rather than in sound bytes).

She understands the world of the RE teacher because it is a very similar world to the one in which she worked. However secular the institution might be, people still project on to you as some sort of representative of God and the Church.

She surveys the literature on aims and objectives for the subject and is up to date – which I wish more teachers would be. She also stresses that it is an academic subject, which many teachers, senior management and, certainly, the Tory education secretaries, seem to deny.

Both the 1944 Education Act and the 1988 Education Reform Act link ‘collective worship’ with RE, something we have been trying to distance ourselves from ever since: Humanists find it intolerable that RE teachers who have tried to teach in an ‘open’ way `should have their efforts undermined by having to parti­cipate in collective worship. At the same time it is clear from the report on a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Assistant Masters’ Association (now ATL) that a considerable proportion of RE teachers will have nothing to do with organizing assembly.

The author points out that the present requirements can engender ‘boredom, apathy, unease and even resentment and hostility’. But she notes a survey that comments that assembly is useful because of its effects on the pupils’ behaviour : ‘Behaviour is noticeably worse on Monday when there is no assembly.’

And she asks, ‘So is religious assembly, then, no more than ‘an institu­tional form of child-control through coalition with God’ ? Useful as such an exercise might be it has little to do with worship.

Against those of us who have tried to make assemblies inclusive and to be ‘more spiritual; than religious’, she says that worship is a transitive verb. It is impossible to worship in the abstract. There must be an object of worship. This was something John Patten tried to tighten up in his 1988 Act.

Times have changed since 1944: Worship was a natural function of the school that regarded itself as a “Christian community. Worship was the expression of its corporate identity. What could be more appropriate than the offering of thanks and praise and prayer to God on the part of a community that was part of God’s people? There was considerable controversy, however, over the place of worship in the 1944 Education Act. Though the act was only making statutory what was generally accepted in practice, many felt there was some­thing undesirable about requiring an act of worship to take place by law.

Apparently Archbishop Willam: Temple was not entirely happy about the worship clause, though he eventually decided in favour of it. The withdrawal clause safeguarded the consciences of those who honestly could not participate in Christian worship : ‘On the whole . . . I am inclined to think it is best to leave the clause in the bill and trust that it will be administered with tact and gentleness. Of course, it is quite true that for prayer to be taken in a perfunctory or hypocritical way can only do harm. …….. I think teachers are a little liable to ignore the fact that while it is objectionable to force the teachers to conduct prayers against their consciences, it is also objectionable to force children to omit prayers for the sake of the teachers’ consciences.

The Durham report concentrated on the educational value of worship and said that pupils should have some initiation into the experience of worship. However, this argument: is justifying worship by what is, in fact, one of its by­products. It is not the purpose of worship to initiate children into an educationally useful experience. The argument seems to suggest that worship should be put on or ‘staged’ for the children’s benefit. It is a kind of religious Punch and Judy show with a hidden moral in the last line.

The Durham report continues with a new argument. All human beings seem to have a need to participate in religious, or quasi-religious ritual. The daily act of worship is an opportunity to do this. It is also clear that most people need periods of quiet and reflection and occasions for communal celebration- with that, I agree. However, the author reckons that: this argument is not really about worship at all. Ritual can be secular. Reflection and celebration do not auto­matically refer to the divine. Worship may help to meet such needs as we have for reflection and celebration, but that is not what worship is for in the first instance. It also seems to be the case that there are many people in our society who feel a deep unease about corporate ritual. They find it depersonalizing and intrusive.

The author suggests that: there is nothing to, stop the Christian members of a school community meeting in some other context to offer prayer and praise. At the same time non-Christians are unlikely to find an act of Christian worship conducive to reaffirming their personal (non-Christian) values. It is rather like expecting a clergyman to say matins silently at a public meeting of the National Secular Society.

The last argument presented in the Durham report suggests that there are still occasions in public life where„ worship takes place, and it is an advantage for children to have had some experience of worship before having to attend a wedding, a funeral, or a Remembrance Day service. This may be true, but again, it is hardly the point. There is nothing to stop children learning about weddings and funerals in class. They should be taken occasionally to observe religious services in local churches; this is part of their religious education. But it does not follow that this justifies a daily act of Christian worship for the whole school. The Durham report goes on to consider the arguments for keeping the daily act of worship compulsory. Here, the reasons are slightly different. It is suggested that if the legal requirement were removed worship would wither away through hostility, timidity or sloth on the part of the teachers.

Which is what has happened.

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