Rev Nigel Genders, above, the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, thinks collective worship offers children a period to pause and reflect on the ‘big questions’ such as ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘How then should I live?’
In a recent letter to the Guardian, he also insisted that school worship wasn’t “indoctrination” and that:
There is much evidence of the value of collective worship to children and young people, which is why thousands of community schools also have strong partnerships with local churches and faith groups. What happens in schools must be evidence-based and should not be in response to secular pressure group campaigns.
Stephen Evans , above, Chief Executive of the National Secular Society, lost no time is slapping Genders down, saying:
The Church of England’s attempt to defend collective worship (Letters, 31 July) should be recognised as a self-serving effort to uphold Christian privilege. Nigel Genders says worship offers children time to pause in their busy days. But secular, ethical assemblies provide a more meaningful opportunity for reflection than exclusive Christian assemblies do – and genuinely include children of all religious backgrounds and none.
The C of E also dismisses claims that its assemblies represent religious indoctrination. But the church is clear that its taxpayer-funded schools provide an opportunity to try to reverse the long-term decline in its attendance numbers. And what are assemblies built around enforced prayer and re-enactments of Bible stories if they are not attempts to teach children to be Christians? Laws that require schools to hold acts of worship are indefensible and should be abolished.
Evans was not the only person to take issue with Gender. Rev Stephen Terry , Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, wrote:
Nigel Genders appears to confuse his terms. If a ‘collective’ act of worship is offered in an ‘authentic’ Christian way, how can it be truly inclusive of all the faiths (and none) represented in any school community? I have often over the years had to try to repair the damage done to children and families by over-evangelistic collective worship, which sought not to examine the ‘big questions’, but crudely to make disciples for Jesus.
In a society that is increasingly culturally diverse, it is surely time for the 75-year-old collective worship requirement to be rigorously and urgently reviewed to reflect the way in which our national understanding on matters of faith has developed since 1944.
And Paul Hall, of Hatfield, Hertfordshire, said:
How very ironic that Rev Genders should claim that ‘what happens in schools must be evidence-based’. And where is the evidence for the extraordinary claims made by the Church of England? Where is the evidence for the fact that one lives after one dies? Of course, if they are asked for evidence to support their extraordinary beliefs, religionists claim that faith supplants the need for evidence. So why does Mr Genders speak about the need for evidence? He cannot have it both ways.
The furore sparked by Genders coincides with reports that a couple who believe their children are being indoctrinated in school Christian assemblies will launch a High Court challenge in a bid to make education more “inclusive”.
LBC Radio says that Lee and Lizanne Harris will claim in an autumn judicial review claim that Burford primary school in Oxfordshire, run by the Church of England, compelled their children take part in Christian prayers and watch re-enactments of Bible stories, including the crucifixion.
The couple want the school to cater for non-believers.
According to the parents, when they withdrew their children from the assemblies the school refused to provide a meaningful alternative of equal educational worth. Instead the school put the children in a room with an iPad, supervised by a teaching assistant.
Humanists UK, which is supporting the parents, said they believed their legal action is the first legal challenge on collective worship to reach the High Court.
In a statement the parents said:
We enrolled our children into a state community school – which is meant to have no religious character – but over time we noticed harmful aspects of evangelism spreading into assembly and other parts of the school which goes against our children’s rights to receive an education free from religious interference.
When our children go to school they shouldn’t have to participate in Christian prayers, or watch biblical scenes such as the crucifixion being acted out, nor should they have to hear from evangelical preachers who spout harmful and often divisive messages.
The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust that Burford primary school is part of said:
Collective worship, which is a statutory requirement in all church and community schools, is aimed at encouraging pupils to develop a sense of mystery, awe and wonder about the world.
The Trust said it was:
Confident that Burford primary school, as a community school, has acted entirely appropriately, and has followed all statutory requirements.
With regard to this report, one of LBC’s presenters – James O’Brien – put a vicar from Stevenage in an uncomfortable position by asking whether he could think of any other context in which he’d be teaching an eight-year-old about nailing people to crosses until they’re dead.
The vicar struggled to answer but then said:
We teach eight-year-olds all sorts of gore, look at Halloween, kids walking around with axes.
O’Brien replied that Halloween is “fantasy” and said:
You teach kids this [the crucifixion] is real.
The vicar defended teaching children the story of the crucifixion by saying:
James, it’s eight-year-olds, you don’t dwell on the horror … God loved the world so much that he gave his Son who died on the cross, you don’t need to go into the detail.
When O’Brien asked, “Why did he die?’ the vicar replied:
That’s a big theological question you haven’t got time for.
That’s a cop out from the cleric.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn (LBC reports)