This week the Commission for Religion in Public Life published its report, “Living with Difference”, covered in the media for the things it concluded need changing in our national life. The media homed in on the criticism of the various ways in which faith and faith communities play a role in education, in particular faith schools and the daily act of collective worship.
The commission set out to trigger a debate that would lead to a readjustment of the way religion and education interact to suit and reflect our contemporary society. There are many positive recommendations in the report, not least the emphasis on the importance of religious understanding and ‘literacy’ and its central place in education, and, more widely, the importance of faith-based charities being able to access public funding for work in the community, providing the aim is not simply to ‘win converts’. In this sense the report does not play to a ‘secularist’ agenda: religion is important and needs to be valued and learnt about.
But the title of the report is significant: Living with difference. While it values and emphasises the importance of religion and belief in society and in education, in the name of reflecting the diversity of belief and faith in Britain today, it also advocates removing or counterbalancing some important aspects of our Christian heritage or practice from public life, including the act of daily collective worship in schools and the distinctive character of faith schools.
So what is religious literacy? It has to be more than a superficial collection of facts about a range of different religions. It is not enough to know a few festivals, holy books and core teachings of the world faiths. The purpose of religious literacy is to understand at a deep level what it is like to live and interpret the world as a person of faith. Like all ‘skill’ acquisition, that cannot be done in the abstract – you cannot effectively teach grammatical knowledge without learning an actual language, and neither can you learn the skills of historical enquiry without learning about an actual historical period. Divorced from the real experience of lived faith, the study of religion can easily become superficial and actually have little impact on deeper religious sensibilities.
Of course, I am not saying that all religious learning and experience in schools has to have as its aim the profound conversion of every child – far from it. But if you completely take away even a taste of involving young people in actual religious practice, such as a sensitively conceived morning assembly, you remove any chance they might have to understand what it is like to be a religious person.
There is a tendency for us to assume that people of faiths other than Christianity must be affronted and offended by any practice of Christianity, and specifically self-consciously inclusive, gentle and carefully framed Church of England worship, in public life, including in schools. It has not been my experience that this is the case. Those from other faiths who are immersed in and very serious about the practice of their own faith tend to have respect for those who profess to be Christians, and if they have any criticism at all, it tends to be about why those who self-identify as Christians are not more open and serious about their own faith. It is not rank and file members of faiths other than Christianity who are asking for these changes – many members of other religious traditions apply for and gain places at this Church of England school precisely, as I have been told many times, because it is a place where faith is valued and respected. And are generally grateful to the Church of England for making available a school where this is the case.
Mindfulness, the practice of meditation in a non-religious framework, has become popular in many schools in recent years, and would presumably feature in many non-religious assemblies as a ‘replacement’ for worship. Interviewed earlier this week in the Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/12032651/Mindfulness-isnt-preparing-children-for-the-real-world-headmaster-warns.html) the headmaster of Ampleforth College offers the view, which I would very much endorse, that while there is nothing wrong per se in encouraging young people to take time out to reflect and recollect, mindfulness practice, as commonly understood, is not itself worship, and does not by itself give young people an objective moral, ethical or spiritual compass to cope with life. As David Lambon says in the interview, “We need to give children not just coping strategies but values that they can rely on no matter what life throws at them. We need to give them something that forms their character as opposed to how they cope with the situation. Gospel values will be with you for every situation in life whereas mindfulness is only when you have a difficulty as a teenager. Life isn’t just about being a teenager.”
I would appeal for great caution in stripping away from our public life and schools every vestige of explicitly Christian practice and teaching in the name of a more accurate reflection of the diversity of modern Britain. We would risk losing something very special and distinctive which can enrich the lives of young people, of all faiths and, perhaps most importantly, none. Good daily collective worship is not proselytising, it does not ‘force feed’ religion, and does not offend those of other faiths. It can help to offer young people a grounding and a compass, and at the end of the day, young people are still free to accept or reject what they hear. There would be so much to lose and little to gain by removing these opportunities.