Thought for the Day - 07/10/2013 - Canon Dr Alan Billings
Some years ago I received a phone call from a colleague in higher education. Would I be willing, at short notice, to give a course on Christian doctrine for some first year undergraduates studying history and English. The students had asked for it because they were struggling to understand the religious dimensions of the English civil war and religious references in the plays of Shakespeare. So I was not surprised to learn yesterday that Ofsted has issued a report saying that too many schools are disadvantaging their pupils by not giving them a proper grounding in the Christian faith.
In part I think this reflects the unforeseen evolution of the subject since the 1945 Education Act decreed that every school should teach religion and every school should have a daily act of collective worship. But what young people have actually experienced over the past half century has changed – something that in large measure reflects changes in British society itself.
Older generations will remember religious instruction, RI. Pupils were taught the Christian faith through bible stories, and introduced to worship through a morning assembly of hymns, prayers and scripture readings. The truth of Christianity was assumed; only Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses were exempted. But from the 1960s, the presence in schools of sizeable numbers of pupils of other faiths made change inevitable. RI gave way to RE, religious education – a comparative religions approach in which the truth of no one faith was assumed and worship was replaced by assemblies on ethical themes. The effect of that was to relativise all faiths, often leaving pupils with the idea that if no one faith could be taught as true, perhaps that was because there was no truth in any one of them. I suspect that this is where the devaluing of the subject has its origins.
There was also a sense that religion belonged to the past and not the future. I think that was always somewhat myopic. Attendances at places of organised religion might have fallen, but religion – the preferred word was now spirituality – religion had morphed and migrated and could be found in many forms and places.
So where are we now? The truth is that beyond western Europe, religion is flourishing. Even within Britain there is vigorous growth as well as decline. I recognise the pressures on the curriculum, but if we are to prepare pupils to take their place in a world of many faiths, they need to be religiously literate, understanding what others believe and why, having some feel for what it means to worship and to pray, and what it is that people reject when they turn from faith.
And that should begin, though not end, with the faith that has shaped so much of both our nation's history and its literature.
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