Whitehall vetoes first ‘secular school’
Since the 1944 Education Act, there has been a statutory obligation upon all maintained schools to provide a daily act of collective worship for all registered pupils, unless they have been withdrawn by their parents. This was reinforced by the Conservative Party – during those years when the Church of England was deemed to be the Conservative Party at prayer - in the Education Act 1988, which followed concerns that this worship in many schools was becoming a secular ceremony, mainly concerned with immanent humanitarian concerns rather than the transcendent and spiritual, and that Religious Education had become a confusing multi-faith amalgam.
Despite the substantial and evident changes which have occurred in the religious make-up of the UK since 1944, the 1988 Act reiterated that schools are required to hold a daily act of collective worship, and specified that this has to be of a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ which should ‘reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief’. According to government guidelines, 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’. However, if this is inappropriate for some or all pupils, the head teacher can apply to the Local Education Authority for a determination to have this requirement lifted, as Dr Paul Kelley has sought to do. But he was told that ‘bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans’ because religion was 'technically embedded' in the education system.
Dr Kelley wishes to reduce religion to ‘moral discussions about religion and world views’, and bemoans the ‘19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment’. In this he is not without reason. Aside from the Established Church, the United Kingdom is Christian nowhere moreso than in its education system. It is a child of the Enlightenment, based on reason and scientific rationalism, whose metanarrative is empiricism which seeks knowledge via the senses and human experience. This is constructed upon a bedrock of the Christian religion, and has served the country well. But Dr Kelley has essentially identified that the era is now postmodern, and that the epistemological relativism of postmodernity challenges all notions of ‘truth’. The notion of even a ‘broadly Christian’ act of collective worship is therefore deemed to be an unacceptable imposition; an offensive attempt to inculcate children with a particular worldview. They should simply be permitted ‘to choose freely’.
His ignorance, of course, is evidence in the undeniable fact that he is simply exchanging one spiritually inductive process for another. If it is wrong, as he asserts, to 'directly or indirectly influence children into a belief that a particular faith is preferable’, then a fortiori must it be wrong to inculcate a lack of faith and spawn generations of irreligious children whose only notion of right and wrong resides in their ‘free choice'.
The country has seen a wide disintegration brought about by the loss of the ‘sacred canopy’ - the overarching framework of shared meanings that once shaped individuals and society. In its place has come pluralism: the idea that society is a neutral arena of private choices where every vision of the good carries its own credentials of authenticity.
In response to Dr Kelley, an unnamed Church of England spokesman says: ‘Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.' Indeed it is, but it is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. There is a fundamental dichotomy between worship and education. The former assumes belief and involves commitment; the latter scrutinises belief and implies a critical attitude. There is a real and serious question as to whether the two can coexist, and this is a valid debate. But if politicians permit the ‘sacred canopy’ to be eliminated altogether, there will no longer be any right or wrong, good or bad, or fact and opinion – ‘what you believe is true’, and consequences for society will be dire.